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Al Kolb: Unity Yields Progress

When he stands on an historic battlefield, this ex-Marine contemplates what the troops endured. As he tours an 800-year-old university, the scientist in him marvels at the discoveries of the past. These examples represent the worst and best in mankind's achievements; both changed the course of history and taught Al Kolb, Ph.D., that progress in any effort requires teamwork, perseverance and leaders who grasp a broad perspective.


Kolb, an SLAS member and SLAS LabAutopedia editor, says that after 30 years in the profession, science has not lost its thrill. "Technology has changed and yet the process of drug discovery is still the same," he explains. "The work still requires intuitive, dedicated people to bring customers and engineers together to achieve an outcome that benefits everyone. Developing technology to enhance the drug discovery process is still the most fascinating and rewarding field I know and I wouldn't want to work in any other."

Whether serving as a scientist, leader, diplomat, editor or volunteer, Kolb has worked tirelessly for the past 35 years to connect members of the scientific community. He found success as a professional and as an SLAS volunteer by cultivating mutual respect among colleagues. It's an approach he recommends. "Understand the other's point of view," he stresses. "It's all about working together to explore compromises and respecting what other people have to say. Everyone wants what's best, and collaboration is the way to bring all stakeholders together to create a satisfying result. Varying opinions and dissention do occur. While this creates challenges, it also results in stronger outcomes."

Mentors Create Forward Motion

Kolb says it's difficult to pinpoint just one mentor who made the difference in his career. "There are so many people who influenced, guided and selflessly helped me by providing opportunities and challenges to grow. One of the most lasting influences in my career was my undergraduate advisor, Wendell Stanley, Jr. He taught me not only scientific techniques, but how to think about science. A year after I left University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine) and his lab for graduate school, I lost my drive to continue. He wouldn't let me quit and brought me back to his lab after personally taking my application through graduate school admissions. I completed my Ph.D. and often think what a different path my career would have taken without his confidence in me.

"There is one piece of advice I will never forget. My first supervisor in a corporate job, at the start of my professional career, taught me how to work in industry. His advice was simple: ‘Be nice to people, you never know who you might work for some day.' While there are other and less cynical reasons to be nice to people, this one is also valid."

Drawing from his own experience, Kolb advises science students to get out of the lab occasionally. "Some people go into science because it can be more solitary. It's too easy to get wrapped up in your own research and forget to reach out to others," he says.

"Take your nose out of the books once in a while. Students need to communicate with people and develop friendships with colleagues because it does so much good in one's career," Kolb says. "When I was in college, because of my background, I knew I had to study to compete. I spent too much time in the lab doing research or reading journals. I didn't take the time that I should have to develop and maintain my networking skills. I developed this later in my career, but it is so important to start early. The Internet and cell phones make networking so easy there is no excuse for not staying in touch with people. Networking is not selfish or something you do for your own advantage. It's also how you can help others and simply stay in touch with people with whom you have shared experiences."

After receiving a Ph.D. in molecular biology and biochemistry from UC Irvine in 1975, Kolb went on to post-doctoral work at the Roche Institute for Molecular Biology in Nutley, NJ, where he also met his future wife. After completing his post-doc it was about time he started on a career.

Morphing from military service and graduate studies into professional life required Kolb to master a different administrative style. "You can't manage people in a corporation the way you manage them in a platoon," says the former sergeant and Vietnam veteran. "I had a bit of a learning curve in mellowing my approach to people!"

Collaboration for the Common Good

"I remember to this day how fun and exciting it was to work with so many brilliant scientists," he says of his first "real" job in industry. It was 1978, and as an application scientist for Beckman Instruments, now called Beckman Coulter, he focused on instrumentation and relating customer needs back to the corporation. "I was an inside customer," he describes. "As important as the technology was, learning how to work in a corporate environment and developing management skills, still an ongoing process, was the best lesson I learned."

Fast forward three-plus decades and Kolb's work as an independent consultant still contains qualities of that first job. He still engages customers and engineers on the development of new products, seeks out new technologies and works on licensing and developing products to a commercial stage. "Being in both worlds – academics and industry – I have been able to get each side to understand what the other needs and wants," Kolb says.

He muses that such intermediary work is no longer unique in the industry. "Over the years companies have grown to know that you can't build something and tell the customer to buy it. You need a much deeper understanding of the client's needs. Companies that exhibit with SLAS today will tell you they have research and application scientists who understand both engineers and customers. That is an extremely important change and it is essential in staying competitive."

Intermediary skills are still vital when Kolb interacts with the Society's expanded, diverse membership of scientists, engineers, academics, business professionals and students with different levels of education. "The people you get to meet in SLAS are dedicated, smart and friendly with diverse backgrounds in experience and education," Kolb comments. "There are no intellectual snobs – just down-to-earth people who are working hard at what they do."

His collaborative skills extend well back into SLAS history. He worked for Packard Instrument Company (now part of PerkinElmer) when he and a handful of people helped found the Society of Biomolecular Sciences (SBS) in 1994. At that time, the skills Kolb used daily in his corporate job were helpful in constructing a professional society of volunteers. "I was on the first board of directors and it was such an exciting time," he says, adding that he convinced Packard to donate the first $5,000 to make it one of six SBS founding companies. "One of Packard's biggest competitors at the time, Wallac (ironically now also a part of PerkinElmer), donated the same amount to become another founder. These companies set aside competition for the common good. It was the start of something great."

As the executive director of SBS, he experienced this sense of common purpose again when SBS merged with the Association for Laboratory Automation (ALA) to form SLAS. "I think that was one of the best things to happen to both societies," says Kolb. "Separately we could have remained independent, but together as SLAS we are much stronger and can accomplish so much more. It really is an example where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

Kolb reflects on this unity and what it can achieve as he shares an encounter he had in Basel, Switzerland last September at MipTec 2012, the European drug discovery conference and exhibition, which SLAS supports. Donald S. Beyer, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, was visiting companies at the MipTec exhibit when he stopped at the SLAS booth. "I first explained the mission of SLAS and the first question the ambassador asked was how SLAS members have weathered the closing of research facilities at pharmaceutical companies. I briefly paused to think about how the pharmaceutical industry and our membership are changing and how we help each other adapt to these kinds of challenges. I told him that it speaks to the heart of what SLAS does to support its membership. By offering free resources such as our online SLAS Career Connections, the Society is extremely proactive in meeting member needs, especially as these needs change," Kolb says.

Building a Strong Society

Although taking on fewer consulting contracts, Kolb reports that he wants to stay involved when it comes to being an SLAS volunteer. "I don't spend as much time as I used to traveling for business so I have more time to return a little of what I have received in my career," he says, adding that there is also a selfish reason for his involvement. "I have been closely involved with SBS and SLAS from the beginning of each. I have been to every annual conference – a feat that I think is a record. After almost 20 years of involvement I want SLAS to continue its success. Besides, I would miss meeting so many old friends and colleagues if I didn't go to the annual conference."

As an SLAS LabAutopedia editor, Kolb gathers articles on interesting technologies, scientific advances and presentations from conferences for the online repository.

He describes his role with a chuckle. "SLAS LabAutopedia is taking more time than I thought it would, but it's fun!" says Kolb of the wiki brainchild of SLAS Director of Education Steve Hamilton, Ph.D., and fellow SLAS member Mark Russo, Ph.D. Because gathering information for such a site is an on-going process, Kolb is joined in his editorial efforts by SLAS member Burkhard Schaefer, BSSN Software, Mainz, Germany.

LabAutopedia houses more than 400 articles and links to thousands more sources. The wiki features the real world, hands-on experiences and perspectives of SLAS members who willingly share their knowledge to make it a unique and meaningful crossroads for the scientific community. Everyone who registers on the site can contribute, enhancing LabAutopedia's applicability and usefulness, but its editors also recruit authors and manage the content once it is online. In one convenient location, users who range from students to industry professionals may find answers to questions regarding laboratory automation system architectures, practicing laboratory automation, tools, technologies, applications and data collection and processing. Category subtopics include error handling, design of experiments, liquid handling, assay detection technologies and data storage and organization.

In addition to his LabAutopedia editorial duties, Kolb also has served SLAS in other ways. For several years, as well as for SLAS2013 in Orlando, he worked with other judges to award the SLAS New Product Award (NPA) designation to exhibitors. "I also visit the exhibitors on behalf of SLAS and see if the companies are happy with the exhibit and take comments and recommendations back to SLAS," Kolb continues. "SLAS really cares about the comments of members, attendees and exhibitors at the annual conference. The Society wants to make certain it provides what the community wants so it can adapt for continued growth. As an invested SLAS member, I am glad to help with that."

Kolb represented SLAS in its MipTec 2012 exhibit booth and attended as many lectures and posters as time would allow – all in an effort to increase the depth of information available in SLAS LabAutopedia. Kolb also personally presented the SLAS Young Scientist Award as part of the SLAS Strategic Alliance program. The poster of the winner is posted on the LabAutopedia website. "These young men and women who are just starting their careers are the leaders and possibly Nobel Laureates of the future," he asserts. "They are going to drive science. If a society such as SLAS can be a part of their growth, that's a tremendous thing."

During MipTec, Kolb also connected with potential authors for the SLAS peer-reviewed scientific journals, the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS) and Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA). "It was encouraging that most people I spoke with knew about the journals and many had published in them – ten percent of those I spoke with had already published in one or both. The journals have a good future and great editors in Dean Ho, Ph.D., editor-in-chief of JALA, and Bob Campbell, Ph.D., editor-in-chief of JBS."

Traveling the World

With his consulting business and SLAS volunteer efforts, Kolb has been fortunate to travel worldwide and visit friends and colleagues wherever he goes. "Even if I don't get to see everyone as much as I want to, I know there will still be a warm welcome when I travel to a conference or another country. I always let people know when and where I am traveling and ask the "locals" what they recommend I do when I get there. It's a great worldwide organization of friends," he explains.

Kolb's wife Jan recently retired as a scientist at Bristol Myers Squibb so that the couple could travel more together. "I used to go to all these wonderful places for my consulting business throughout Europe and the U.S., and Jan didn't get to go with me because she was still working. That really annoyed her!" he says, remarking how much he enjoys his travel partner. "Traveling alone is fun, but traveling with someone special makes it much more fun."

In May 2012, the Kolbs were in Italy, among other places, for two weeks. After MipTec in September, he and Jan spent a week and a half in Germany visiting family and Medieval cities. On occasion they meet up with friends from England and travel to Napoleonic and World War I battlefields. "We do a lot of reading on the area before we go," Kolb says. "We like to walk the battle grounds and get a feeling for the conflict. There's something intense about the horrible carnage and what those men must have endured."

Understanding the past in his travels is important. "Whether it's the history of the country, a city, a cathedral or a battlefield, we like to study it before we go. Some of the universities in Europe that date back to the 1200s are just amazing," says Kolb. He pauses to consider those educational institutions. "What scientists and discoveries those universities have witnessed over the years! You can stand in a building and say, ‘this is where Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus and so much more, or this is where Friedrich Miescher discovered DNA.' It gives me an incredible feeling for what mankind has accomplished, especially without the technology of modern science."

The Kolbs have two children – long grown and out of the house – who they still vacation with when careers allow. Son Eric attended The University of South Florida and has a master's degree from the City University of New York. Daughter Lori attended New York University and has a master's degree from Oxford University. Eric is a therapist in New York City and Lori works in education in London, England.

March 11, 2013