Tania Sasaki

Dr. Tania Sasaki received her B.A. in chemistry from Pomona College in Claremont, CA, and her Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from the University of California-Riverside where her dissertation focused on gas chromatography with mass spectral and infrared detection. She currently oversees two clinical toxicology laboratories in Bellevue, WA, where she serves as their Chief Scientific Officer. Her extensive experience in both LC-MS/MS and toxicology is demonstrated through the many articles she has authored, numerous presentations at national and international conferences, and invitations to instruct training courses and webinars about drug testing and toxicology.

1.) What was your most valuable student experience while at Pomona (sports, internships, extracurriculars, on-campus job, etc.)?

Two experiences stood out to me while at Pomona: 1) participating in the student summer research program in the chemistry department; and 2) working in the athletic training room.

I was a chemistry major so getting the opportunity to participate in “real research” (vs textbook experiments) was a great learning experience. I worked with Prof. Alvin Beilby, who was the analytical chemist in the department. This experience helped lay the foundation for graduate school and my future chemistry career. Prof. Beilby also helped me determine which graduate programs were most relevant for my interest in analytical chemistry.

I was a certified aerobics instructor and taught aerobics throughout college (and beyond) – both on and off campus. As a result, I developed an interest in kinesiology, fitness, etc., so when I saw a posting for student athletic trainers, I applied and was offered a position. Not only did I learn a lot about sport medicine, injuries, etc., I got to meet new people and make new friends – both other student trainers as well as student athletes. (My “claim to fame” is that I used to tape Mike Budenholzer’s ankles!) Kirk Jones was an excellent teacher and built a good team.

2.) What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What is most rewarding?

One of the biggest challenges I think many people face as they advance in their career is transitioning from being “hands on/in the trenches” and moving toward a more administrative role. Personally, I find doing science quite interesting and I still enjoy the (much-too-rare) occasion when I can “play” with an instrument, whether it’s troubleshooting an issue or developing a new method. Now that I have moved to a more senior (read: administrative) position, the most challenging aspects of my job are: 1) dealing with HR problems, whether poor performance or some other HR related issue (fortunately, it is a rare occurrence) and 2) getting caught up in the tedious – but necessary – administrative tasks and paperwork. There are times I really miss being a “bench chemist!”

It sounds cliché, but I truly do find mentoring people and helping them develop their careers as the most rewarding aspect of my job. It is very fulfilling to observe my team learning new things and becoming increasingly independent. I hire a lot of entry level positions and seeing brand new graduates mature professionally is very satisfying. I have even had the opportunity to mentor employees in their first supervisory/management role and I enjoy working with them as they develop their leadership skills and determine their management style. My mantra to my management team is “I will consider myself successful when you no longer need me on a day-to-day basis, only the ‘one-off’ issues (which are hopefully rare!)”

3.) What do you wish you’d known when first starting out in your career?

I was very fortunate that my first job sort of “fell into my lap” and I ended up with a wonderful first “real” manager who was not only a good manager, but a great mentor. I gained a lot of scientific knowledge from him, as well as guidance through the corporate culture and political maze of corporate America.

There are actually two things that I really wish I would have known when I started my trek into the “real world”: 1) how to negotiate terms of employment better, including things like relocation, etc., and 2) how truly variable managers are in terms of quality. Although I wish I would have known and better understood these two items, navigating the good, bad, and ugly was a learning experience that did help shape my current career.

Negotiating employment terms can be daunting – especially with the first job or two. I did OK, but as I got older and more experienced, I had more confidence and a better understanding of how the system typically works so could negotiate better. The best leverage is usually as a new hire, though you do have to be cautious not to push too hard and annoy your future boss/colleagues before you even arrive! It’s a fine balance. Find a good mentor and discuss the offer and what would be a reasonable counter. Remember it’s not necessarily all about salary, as it should be about total compensation including paid time off (PTO), etc.

When I was just getting started in my career, I had the perspective that “good” people get promoted to management. I was very fortunate to have some phenomenal managers in my career and very few “challenging” ones. However, there are managers who are incompetent and some who do not develop – and even hinder – their team’s development, often because s/he may feel threatened. Perhaps it should not have been, but that was a big surprise to me. I did make it a point to learn something from all of my managers/directors: sometimes it was what to do to be a good manager, sometimes it was what NOT to do.

4.) What is the most difficult interview question you’ve been asked?

I actually cannot remember my most difficult interview question.  Nothing stands out. I must be lucky.

5.) Was your first job after graduating from Pomona related to your current profession?

I was fortunate to get a job that was a direct extension of my dissertation work and I was working in an analytical chemistry R&D lab. My current job is somewhat related, but a tangent. I started working for a tobacco company doing analytical work on the various products and components. (Side note: I never thought I would accept the position but was very impressed by the team and the laboratory. It ended up being a great career move, as mentioned above, due to a wonderful first manager/mentor and learning experience. Always keep an open mind…) I moved on to working for a laboratory equipment manufacturer (which was what I had always wanted to do!) and then “stumbled” into the clinical laboratory field, which is where I currently work. I use the chemistry skills I developed in graduate school, so it is related in that sense, but have learned much more regarding medical insurance, billing, operations etc. My current focus is all drug testing so it is interesting, especially (though somewhat unfortunately) due to the opiate epidemic and all the “designer” drugs that have been hitting the street.

6.) How do you stay up to date on trends within your industry? (books, professional associations, journals, conferences)

The clinical laboratory is a regulated field and toxicology (drugs) is very dynamic due to the new drugs that are constantly hitting the streets (e.g. “K2/Spice,” “Bath Salts,” and all the new fentanyl-type drugs). I typically attend two national conferences a year and occasionally a regional conference/workshop. These conferences are sponsored by national (or even international) professional organizations, some of which I am a member. I also sign up for newsletters where I can skim headlines/titles for topics I may want to research more and attend webinars on topics of interest. I’ve also developed a good network of colleagues so I can always reach out to them if I have questions. Finally, I receive a couple journal subscriptions and try to find time to at least look at the table of contents of each.