Chemists in the Real World
LaTonya Mitchell’s job is to protect the public health, something she’s been doing for almost 20 years. “I have truly enjoyed my career since the very first day. There is never a dull moment. Last year, my district was handling the Listeria monocytogenes in cantaloupe, this year it's the peanut butter recall. I have a truly enriched career; one that I would not trade for anything.”
She has had a very diverse range of responsibilities, all within the Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA), part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), whose mission is to assure the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, tobacco products, our nation's food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation. More than 135,000 business establishments that annually handle $1 trillion worth of consumer goods are regulated by 4,400+ ORA personnel in 200+ locations.
My first job was as a chemist at the FDA’s Kansas City District Office, a position I held for 8 years. While there I analyzed many complex, routine, and novel drug, food, and foodware samples to determine their compliance with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. I was one of the lead chemists for lead, cadmium, and nickel analyses, and the lead analyst for total mercury analysis. I analyzed consumer complaint samples to determine if food products were suitable for consumption. I became an expert in the operation, maintenance, and quality control of a wide variety of sophisticated scientific instrumentation, and enjoyed modifying general analytical methods to quantitate a specific compound of interest.
I also performed regulatory inspections as part of a team, evaluating laboratories and their quality control systems for adherence to FDA requirements, which included reviewing methods, standard operating procedures and quality assurance programs. This was fun...doing something slightly different outside the lab, yet still using my chemistry background.
Learning from Rejection
After 5 years, I applied for a Supervisory Chemist position, but was not selected. I was disappointed, but used the experience to better prepare for the next time.
I learned as much as possible about the FDA, and when opportunities presented themselves, I volunteered and was eager and willing to pursue them.
For example, I was the Quality System Representative for my lab, responsible for developing and implementing a Quality Management System in conformance to ISO 17025, the ISO standard for testing and calibration laboratories. Successfully implementing this system lead to our lab being fully accredited by A2LA.
I became an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor, and then a collateral-duty mediator, receiving training that let me serve as a neutral third party to resolve issues between employees and managers.
Throughout my career, I took great advantage of a government program that lets employees apply to temporarily serve in vacant positions. During this part of my career, for example, I served three details of at least 30 days as an Acting Supervisory Chemist, supervising chemists and laboratory technicians. This not let me experience what the job was really like, but let my potential supervisors see how I would handle the job.
Moving on to Management
Although I enjoyed the chemist position, eventually I wanted to transition into a managerial role, and I applied for the FDA's Leadership Development Program. This was a turning point in my career, as it gave me new insights into the overall mission of the FDA and its various organizational components. I spent a year serving short assignments, including
- 45 days as a program analyst in the Division of Planning, Evaluation & Management to gain a better understanding of resource management and budget formulation.
- 5 weeks in San Juan Puerto Rico as a field compliance officer, gaining a greater understanding of field drug compliance and enforcement operations, and import operations.
- 30 days as a Special Assistant to the Office of Regional Operations Director, providing interpretation and guidance on investigative, emergency, and science operational policies and special issues which crossed organizational lines.
I had about a dozen assignments overall, which gave me a broad view of the FDA. At the end of the year of traveling, I was very glad to be back in Kansas City, where I had been promoted to Supervisory Chemist.
For the next 4 years, I supervised ten interdisciplinary scientists and two physical science technicians on the GC Pesticide team, working in chromatography and wet chemistry. This included regulatory programs for human food and animal feeds, and a non-regulatory surveillance program. My day-to-day responsibilities included work planning and assignments, technical consultation, review of completed work, regulatory decision-making, and preparation of summary reports.
I also supervised chemists who performed team inspections (domestic and foreign), and served as the acting Laboratory Director in my supervisor's absence.
My first gray hairs starting forming in 2003-2004 when I worked on the Liberty Shield Response team, responsible for the security of the nation's food supply during the Iraq war.
Deciding to Relocate
In 2006, I made an extremely difficult decision to begin pursuing FDA opportunities outside Kansas City, the only way I could advance my career. Two positions opened up - Lab Director at the Denver District Office and Chemistry Branch Director at the Southeast Regional Laboratory in Atlanta, GA. I applied for both, and accepted the Atlanta position. As my son headed off to college, I headed south to Atlanta. My husband stayed and maintained our home in Kansas City.
The Chemistry Branch Director position offered the challenge of managing multiple programs at a Regional Laboratory, which is much larger than a district laboratory and can perform a broad range of analytical analyses in both chemistry and microbiology. I managed over 30 people, as well as a variety of analytical programs including pesticide, mycotoxin, chemotherapeutics, and food and color additives analyses.
I worked closely with my chemists and science advisors to implement a viable applied method validation program in the branch, and many of our findings were published in scientific journals.
I also worked closely with state officials and provided training and guidance in analytical methodologies and techniques.
Just 3 months after I arrived, the Regional Laboratory Director announced her retirement. I and the other Branch Directors were to manage the overall laboratory operations and scientific activities as a team, while individually managing our respective branches. For 9 months I worked very closely with the other branch directors, some of whom became mentors.
This was in 2007 when there was a major incident of pet food contaminated with melamine, and many cats and dogs were sickened or even died. My branch analyzed over 250 pet food and ingredient samples during this incident.
Our next major project was the analysis of samples related to the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill. I shared our response activities with other federal and state agencies, as well as with the regulated industry itself.
Close to the Laboratory
While I was fully engaged in laboratory operations, I still had a strong desire to pursue opportunities outside the lab when the timing was right.
In 2008, I served 30 days as the Acting Director for our Executive Operations Staff, reporting to the Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs (ACRA), who has overall responsibilities for all FDA field operations. I was his principle advisor on matters concerning the development, recommendation, coordination of Congressional requests on behalf of the Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA), and worked closely with the Office of Legislation.
Furthermore, in 2009 and 2010, I spent 6 weeks then 30 days as Acting District Director for Atlanta, which included issuing various correspondences to regulated industries (warning letter, copy of the establishment inspection report, or information related to a recall, meeting with representatives from HQ, Federal Executive Women, and regulated industries, and representing the District at various industry meetings. I also served as acting director of the San Francisco District Office for 60 days, a much larger district.
These opportunities solidified my desire to one day hold such a position.
Ready to Move Again
In 2011, three district director positions opened in Detroit, Nashville, and Denver. I had applied to serve a detail for the New Orleans District, but did not hear back. So, I applied for a detail as the Acting Director at the Denver District. They immediately responded, and I went there for a month. When I got there, I knew it was the place for me. Two months later, I learned I been selected for the position.
I am District Director of the Denver office, with overall responsibility for the direction and coordination of investigative and compliance activities in four states, overseeing a staff of 145 in Lakewood, CO, as well as 8 people in Salt Lake City and two in Albuquerque.
In addition to investigative and compliance activities, my scientists (primarily chemists and microbiologists) test a wide range of foods and animal feeds (domestic and imported) for dangerous and illegal analytes such as micro-pathogens (e.g. Salmonella spp., E. coli, Bacillus spp., Clostridium spp., Listeria monocytogenes, Shigella spp.), human and veterinary drug residues, food and color additives and preservatives and medical products such as drugs and devices using a variety of microbiological and chemical methods.
Advice for Current Students
First, set both short and long term goals. Have a blueprint to help guide your path, but don’t set it in stone.
Secondly, seek out mentors and advisors who can assist you in your career, especially those who will be brutally honest yet helpful in guiding you where you want to go.
Thirdly, being flexible and willing to relocate is a plus. If I had not left Kansas City in 2006 but instead waited until the lab director sought another position, I would still be a supervisory chemist today, 11 years later. Take on extra tasks outside your current position, and volunteer within your professional society.
Finally, seek challenging work assignments and find a way to try out positions, to see if it is something you can and want to do. It also allows your potential supervisor to see what you bring to the position. I am confident that working with my current supervisor on the temporary assignment is what gave me an edge over the other candidates.
I really don’t know what the future holds, but I love what I’m doing now. I want to stay in this job for several years. It's really important to me to learn all I can from this job, and I owe it to the public and to myself to perform it at the highest level I can. After that I will think about where to go next.
Seek out mentors and advisors who can assist you in your career, especially those who will be brutally honest yet helpful in guiding you where you want to go."