Alumni Profiles Series: Janice Hessling
Dr. Janice Hessling completed her Ph.D. (Microbiology and Immunology) and M.D at Duke. Hessling currently serves as Medical Director and CLIA Lab Director at Quest Diagnostics. She describes her role as “the doctor’s doctor.” When she’s not in the lab or advocating for equity in scientific industry and healthcare, she can be found traveling across the nation to boy-band concerts with her daughter.
What were your career aspirations in graduate school? Do they reflect where you are now in your career?
My goal has always been to “cure cancer and teach,” and I was also adamant about having work-life balance. I believe I’ve found that. I currently serve as Medical Director and CLIA Lab Director at Quest Diagnostics. In a nutshell, my role involves everything. My responsibilities range from ensuring data integrity and facility safety to customer satisfaction. I split my time between this role and my duties as a pathologist, diagnosing patient specimens behind a microscope. Each day is unpredictable, but that’s one of the aspects I love most about my work.
How do you balance your scientific work as a pathologist with your role as a leader and administrator at Quest?
I would describe my job in some ways as a juggling act. In the middle of doing surgical pathology work I will sometimes have ten different employees walk in my door with ten different questions. I have an open-door policy so I anticipate such interruptions. I’m often switching my attention from the microscope to email requests for consultations to phone calls with clients to in-person conversations with quality assurance personnel. Supervisors from all of the labs and from various departments seek me out regularly for guidance. As a result, I have to understand how to multitask and how to prioritize issues in a logical and efficient way. Every day brings with it new and unexpected problems to solve.
I have also done some consulting work, both on a contractual basis with other companies and independently. Clinical trials and consultancy work allow you to address big questions like what the next treatment or diagnostic tool for cancer might be. Being involved with this work allows you to be at the forefront of new state-of-the-art techniques that can allow us to set more ambitious healthcare goals. This has been a great part of my career.
What are some of the challenges you face in your industry and position?
You always have to be on your toes. Clinicians rely on you to answer urgent questions without advance notice. You have to try to stay abreast of everything at all times. Being able to admit when you don’t know the answer and saying “I’ll get back to you with that information” is just as important. You can’t know everything. Patient lives are at stake so there is little room for error. This is a high-stakes field and you have to be aware of your accountability.
You’ve held multiple leadership roles in this field. Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?
On the contrary, I took quite a circuitous route. After receiving my Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from Duke, I completed several postdocs, worked as a consultant, and served as an adjunct professor at NCCU. After years of telling students to do what they loved, I decided to follow my own advice. I successfully completed medical school while married with two very young children. It’s never too late to change career directions!
Did you have any particular difficulties climbing the career ladder as a woman?
Yes. During one interview I was asked “What do you think you’re doing applying to this role?” I could have balked, but from an early age, my mother instilled in me the importance of expressing myself. I was raised to celebrate self-confidence and to believe that I could do anything. Knowing that I was qualified for the position, I told my interviewer exactly who I was and why I deserved to be there. It turns out that I was right, and I got the position! If there is a lesson to take away from this, it’s that you shouldn’t let anyone else try to undermine your competence and accomplishments.
Have your experiences as a woman in STEM affected your motivation and goals?
I’m passionate about the work I do, but I also want to create paths for other women. I want to change the dominant professional metaphor from a career ladder to a career lattice. Just because you start on one path doesn’t mean you can’t switch to a different track, and I want people to be aware of this.
I am very proud to be the chair of the steering committee for the Regional Women in Leadership Program for Quest. I’ve also become the grassroots chair for a Quest National Women in Leadership committee. Through that we do events and try to engage women in leadership or career development to interact with other employees at Quest.
When I was teaching at NCCU, students asked me for career advice. Many times, they would tell me about a current job that they felt was not allowing them to reach their full potential. My advice to them was that even if you feel like a job is beneath you, you have to do that job to the best of your ability or people will not give you additional responsibilities. Your current work ethic and work habits represent you in your supervisors’ eyes. This is advice that I would give to women in STEM as well.
What career goals would you like to work toward in the future?
I would like to continue focusing on consulting and clinical trials. Last year I was named to join a national Best Practices Team for all of the Quest chemistry testing. As part of that initiative, I’m currently extending my national network and ties with the larger laboratory communities with which I’m involved.
There are also some current issues I feel very strongly about addressing. We need to take steps in the medical community to figure out how we can best serve transgender populations. Currently when you come into a doctor’s office, medical staff will fill out a requisition for you for testing. Some of the tests are based solely on demographic information, such as whether you identified as “male” or “female.” But these categorizations—and the way that they automatically generate certain test procedure requests—are inadequate and misleading. For example, many transgender women need to be screened for prostate cancer but may have trouble receiving authorization for that test. I don’t want there to be any questions or delays at the laboratory level when it comes to individuals receiving the medical care that they need. I am actively working to try to resolve these issues with both IT divisions and corporations who provide medical technologies and service.
How do you like to spend your time outside the lab?
I love being with my family, and I love traveling. I met my husband of 45 years in high school. After years of talking to NCCU students and discussing their career paths, it finally hit me that I should go to medical school. When I told my husband, he looked at me and said, “Well, that’s what I’ve been telling you for the last 10 years.” It was difficult, but he was a wonderful support during that time.
Before college I had traveled extensively. I had been to 46 out of 50 states and parts of Europe. My mom loved to travel so she took us everywhere, and I try to give my children the same experience. I have made a tradition out of traveling around and seeing boy bands with my daughter. We used to see *NSYNC and then, later on, One Direction. We combine the concerts with historic site-seeing wherever we are.
One of my guiding principles in both my professional and personal life is to be grateful. I’m happy to have the opportunity to do interesting, rewarding work, and thankful to have a supportive family.
Christine Daniels, Ph.D.
Recent Ph.D. graduate, Molecular Cancer Biology
Christine Daniels received her Ph.D. from Duke in Molecular Cancer Biology in 2018. Her dissertation research focused on elucidating molecular pathways that dictate cell polarity. She is currently working as a Business Development Researcher for Heat Biologics.