Cleaning Up the Environment: Life as a Senior Remediation Lab Manager

April 4, 2019

Sandra Dworatzek is a Senior Manager at SiREM, an environmental laboratory that provides high-quality environmental remediation products, testing and specialty analytical services to clients on multiple continents.  They also conduct bioremediation research and development (R&D), often collaborating with prestigious research universities and organizations.  In addition, SiREM commercially produces and provides microbial cultures used for bioaugmentation as part of environmental bioremediation projects.   

Sandra thanks for letting us interview you – we really appreciate it!  Your company sounds interesting.  Can you please describe what you do at SiREM?  In other words, what’s a typical day for you as a Senior Manager?  
There is rarely a typical day at SiREM, and I love my job because it’s not routine.  I do many different things and am always learning.  I oversee treatability testing and bioaugmentation culture development.  I write proposals, review data and reports, explain data to clients, and go to conferences and meetings.   I am not at the bench anymore, but I interact with our laboratory technicians on a daily basis. Often, I am troubleshooting by trying to understand unexpected outcomes and coming up with innovative solutions for my clients.

So, how did you end up at SiREM?   Can you briefly describe your personal career path to where you are now?  
I completed my Master’s degree in microbiology at the University of Waterloo during a recession, and it took a while to find a job.  However, I was fortunate to find a position as an environmental microbiologist working on site remediation technology development where I was able to gain experience bench-testing bioremediation technologies.  Then, I had the opportunity to work as a research associate and laboratory manager with Dr. Elizabeth Edwards at the University of Toronto.  SiREM was founded in 2002, and I was one of the founding staff, focused on treatability testing and bioaugmentation cultures. I have been with SIREM for 17 years now!

For your job, it sounds like you had to master a lot of different skills than just how to do quality science.  What non-technical skills did you have to learn in addition to science? 
Although being a competent scientist is an important aspect of my job, there are many other skills that have contributed to my career success.  As scientists, we are trained to ask questions.  However, resourcefulness, common sense, being able to troubleshoot and think on my feet has really helped me solve not just scientific problems, but also the challenges of working with a diverse group of people. Networking, as well as time and people management skills are also integral to project success.  I never expected to be thought of as a spokesperson or brand ambassador but surprisingly I enjoy speaking to others about science-based solutions.

As a brand ambassador for science-based products, I bet you have to communicate with people who aren’t microbiologists.  What advice would you give to students when it comes to communicating well with others?
Keep it simple, listen and let the other person ask questions.  Rather than dive into the details, give information in easy to digest tidbits instead of trying to tell others everything you know.  Good communication relies on listening to others and anticipating the needs of those around you.

You attend a lot of conferences in your position.  For most young scientists, conferences can be really intimidating even though networking is critical for any job.  What advice do you have for young scientist on how to effectively make new professional connections at a conference? 
Be prepared! Have a 30-second elevator speech about who you are and what you are doing (or want to do).  Don’t be shy – introduce yourself where ever you go - in the registration line, in between talks, or at lunch.

Interesting! Do you find yourself having just one standard elevator speech or do you have different ones when talking to different types of people? 
I have a few versions depending on the audience.  Often, I am working with other environmental professionals such engineers, geologists, hydrogeologists and chemists – for them I need to have a less technical way of describing microbiology (e.g., chlorinated solvent degrading bacteria breathe chlorinated solvents much like we breathe air).  However, when talking with other microbiologists, I can be more technical when describing the science of pollutant-degrading microbes. 

Finally, we all hear that it’s important to maintain a healthy work/life balance.  For most people, sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t.  However, when you ARE able to get away from work what do you like to do to recharge and have fun? 
My get-away from work is a busy home-life since I am married with 2 almost grown kids.  I love traveling – family trips with my spouse and children are a great way for me to get away from work. Our family has traveled to St. Croix, Puerto Rico, the Canadian Rockies, England, Wales, Amsterdam and Paris. Often, we are visiting friends and family. My husband and I look forward to more trips once our children have fully flown the nest!  We also have a shared family cottage that lets us enjoy our great Canadian summers on the Canadian Shield.  It can feel overwhelming keeping up with work and family, but I’ve worked hard to stay connected with friends – I do a spa weekend every year with the same 3 girlfriends for 20 years!

Great answer!  We want to say thanks for taking the time to talk to us.  You’ve given some really strong advice that a lot of young career microbiologists will appreciate, so thanks again!    
 

Author: Eleanor Jennings

Eleanor Jennings
Dr. Eleanor Jennings is a Principal Microbiologist at Parsons Corporation.