Eric Vela '00 — There is an “I” in Team
…or how a liberal arts education teeming with critical thinking moved this virologist to the head of the class.
By Donna Parker
Science and farming provide balance for virologist, Dr. Eric Vela
Leadership is an important skill in business, but in the case of Dr. Eric Vela, it is critical-very much a matter of life or death. As the senior research scientist at Ohio-based Battelle Biomedical Research Center, Eric and his 12-member team work in the lab with some killer viruses such as Monkeypox virus, West Nile virus, bird flu, Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, and other extremely dangerous pathogens.
"Staying on task, especially for us, is critical, or as I tell my team, ‘Respect the pathogen; it will not respect you,'" explains Eric.
"Often we work long hours in the lab, all while wearing head units attached to a blower fitted around the waist that filters air as we breathe in and out. The respirator is loud, making it difficult to communicate, but mentally we have to stay sharp and alert, when handling pathogens. That's not always easy."
Eric, who earned his B.S. in biology from Trinity and a Ph.D. in virology and gene therapy from the UT Health Science Center in Houston, interfaces daily with Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as Battelle provides service for clients taking products to licensure via FDA approval. This requires strong critical thinking skills, the financial expertise to stay on budget, and taking responsibility of self and others-something he says he first learned as a Trinity student.
"Basically, what Trinity did for me was help me grow up. Mom and Dad weren't there to bail me out," he laughs.
"I also learned effective time management, as the academic portion was very difficult for me. And, I learned to adapt. Even now I can plan out my day, but 9 times out of 10, by early morning that plan is destroyed, and I know how to adapt and overcome."
"This sense of responsibility and scientific integrity walk hand in hand. Being in Trinity's small environment extended the opportunity to perform undergrad research and observe scientifically, as well as conduct field research and write scientifically."
"My first field study was done under Trinity's Dr. David Ribble. We set up traps to collect bats and measure their wingspan. It was so exciting, as it was done at night near a stream where we knew they'd go for water. Back in the lab, Dr. Purcell in the chemistry department allowed us to write portions of scientific manuscripts about our observations-very different from creative writing."
"Science is about observing and questioning. What I remember most from Trinity was learning how to ask a question. Science is about making an observation, and it doesn't matter what it is if one doesn't ask the proper question."
The spirit of giving back, so encouraged at Trinity, lives on with Eric as he judges high school science fairs, helps out with building parks and libraries, and plays double bass for local symphonies, a musical skill he developed on campus.
Extra-curricular activities on campus included football and track, which built the foundation of teamwork, as well. Which leads to his present position of drug discovery and efficacy research, resulting in 23 publications and 33 presentations on virology. But, it all goes back to leadership.
"My leadership technique revolves around not treating everyone exactly the same, but rather determining what button I can push with people. Some need a gentle pat on the back because they are more emotional, while others need somewhat of a harder stance."
"That is extremely helpful not only in what I do, but also in dealing with different approaches to problem solving within my team. Each of our projects begins with a team kickoff meeting to discuss goals and aims. Once a big project is completed, we have a camaraderie party that usually turns into a teaching event," laughs Eric.
This busy virologist, who formerly lived in a downtown loft, recently decided to de-stress in the country and bought a farm complete with two quarter horses, 40 Boer goats, two Great Pyrenees, and two inside dogs named Koa and Whiskey.
"It doesn't matter how bad a day I've had, when I come home to the farm, the animals always need to be fed and cared for."
In the lab and on the farm, Eric is the leader of the pack.
You may contact Eric at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Story posted: August 2013