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Company veteran: A day in the life of a research director at Vector Laboratories

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Finding the right job is like finding a good friend group; it usually takes a few tries and some aches and pains, but once you’ve found it, you want to stick with it as long as you can. For Erika Leonard, Director of Research & Development, she was one of the lucky few to find the perfect fit on the first try. We sat down with Erika, who has been with Vector Laboratories for nearly 30 years, to learn more about what she’s done in the past, what she currently does, and what drives her here at Vector Laboratories. 

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I was born in Castro Valley, California and have lived in the Bay Area my whole life. I attended the University of California, Berkeley, where I studied cellular physiology and graduated with my BS in Integrated Biology. I debated whether I would pursue a graduate degree and decided to get some work experience prior to making that decision.  

What made you go into science?

Several things. One, my high school and college science classes—I loved them. I enjoyed the labs, designing experiments, anticipating the outcome, evaluating the data. I just love the scientific process. Two, I saw the process of using scientific discoveries to impact people’s lives and I wanted to be part of that. Scientific discovery can lead to new technologies. It can solve problems and help us make informed decisions.

How did you end up working at Vector Laboratories? And what has made you stay so long? 

After interviewing at many biotech firms around the Bay Area, I accepted a position in the QC department at Vector Laboratories. I really enjoyed this role because I had the opportunity to “wear many hats” since we were a small company. What made me stay at Vector for so long? The people, my teams, and the opportunities that I had to grow in my career. I feel like Vector Laboratories helps scientists across many fields find answers, and these answers can lead to impacts for individuals. 

You’ve been at Vector Laboratories for almost 30 years now; what roles have you had? 

I started off in the QC department, where I created standardized QC methods for individual product categories and established product specifications. I worked with the R&D team to evaluate new products and develop new assays. I worked with the manufacturing department to troubleshoot issues. Over the years, I grew in my role and was promoted to Senior QC Analyst then QC Manager, taking on more responsibility. Eventually I was promoted to the Director of the QC department. Throughout this journey, I always had a strong relationship with the R&D department and frequently worked on projects with them and provided guidance for assay optimization and process development. 

What is your current position and what do you do?

Currently I am the Director of the R&D department. I oversee the end-to-end development of new products and programs for our company. I work with a fantastic group of scientists to understand current scientific research and methodologies so that we can provide researchers with relevant, useful tools that drive scientific discovery.  

What exactly does a day in your job look like? 

I usually start my day with a cup of coffee and my email, followed by a check-in with my team to get project updates and review any new data. We often brainstorm new experiments and discuss timelines and resources. Then I spend some time reading the current scientific literature to review how scientists are applying current technologies, what data is generated by those tools, and identifying if there are ways that we can make their lives easier and further empower their discoveries. I interact frequently with our product manager as we work through the various stages of our programs. And don’t forget the meetings.  

What do you enjoy most about your job? 

First, the people. I know that sounds cliché, but I have the most amazing coworkers and leadership that support one another through all projects big and small. We just finished relocating our business to a new state-of-the-art facility in Newark, California. We faced supply chain issues and other delays, and the teams worked through every challenge with focus, flexibility, and a positive attitude. I was not surprised by this, however, because this is how we are. Another thing I really enjoy is knowing that Vector Laboratories is empowering research. The greatest reward is having customers use our new products to make scientific discoveries. That’s why we do what we do.  

Just like any job, there are challenges. What are some of the challenges you face? 

In R&D you must be flexible and be willing to fail, and that can be challenging. Experiments will fail, projects will fail, and you must be able to analyze the data, pivot if needed, and decide on a path forward. Leading the team through failure is a difficult part of my job, but I think having an occasional failure makes the successes even more rewarding. 

Last question. It seems like you’ve spent a good chunk of your life at Vector Laboratories. What do you do outside of work? 

I love spending time with my family—especially outdoors. I love mountain biking and hiking, and I have two dogs that enjoy joining in. My two boys love building Legos, so instead of game night, we will often turn on a movie and build Legos together. I also love relaxing with a good book and a glass of wine. 

We hope you enjoyed getting to know more about one of the great minds who works at Vector Laboratories. You can check out our other Scientist Spotlight interviews on our SpeakEasy Science blog. Stay tuned for more behind the scenes features. 

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Sierra Cotton