December 2018 – Ivana Frech

One of the chief benefits of a multidisciplinary team is that members provide varied viewpoints on a particular problem. But when you have Ivana Frech, MS, DSc, PhD, MBA, on your team, the multitude of perspectives can come from just one person. Dr. Frech’s title, Assistant Research Scientist, does not scratch the surface of just how invaluable she is as lab manager for Dr. Frank Zhan, Professor in the Division of Hematology, Oncology, and Blood and Marrow Transplantation. It is that list of degrees behind her name that gives the better hint.

Degrees open doors
Originally from Sicily, Italy, Dr. Frech laughed when she recalls her family’s reaction to her decision to study medicine. “‘Why would you want to do that?’ they said.” She wanted to help people and resisted their urging to pursue business or law, which has far more available professional opportunities in Italy. But not long into training as a surgeon in pursuit of her DSc, she realized that direct patient contact was not what she wanted. Research was the stronger pull, but that also meant studying and working outside of Italy, most likely in the United States. Because she had only studied Latin in her parents’ anticipation of a future legal career, she needed to work on her English. And her science.

“I realized that if I took a Masters in Scientific Writing and Editing, I would learn English.” She was not striving for fluency, just enough to be able to write. “Even if I stayed in Italy, when you write a paper, you have to write it in English.” At the same time as she was getting a crash course in the language, she was also steeping herself in science. As soon as she completed that degree, it was on to a PhD program at the University of Messina, which contained an international study requirement. Dr. Frech was soon headed for Salt Lake City.

A broader perspective
At the University of Utah, Dr. Frech studied with hematologists and oncologists, examining molecular regulation of iron transporters in eukaryotes. After defending her thesis back in Messina, she returned to Utah for postdoctoral work and stayed on, first as a research associate, then as a research assistant professor. As her three-year R01 to study the regulation of iron metabolism came to an end, a new goal occurred to her: health care administration. She says that she likes science, but her dream now is to be an administrator. Two years later Dr. Frech earned her MBA, even spending six weeks in China studying a new clinic being opened there.

Dr. Frech feels uniquely positioned as a result to see the bigger picture in the research enterprise. “I think I know how the system works inside.” The “dark side” of administration is much clearer to her. “If you’re a [principal investigator], you wonder why everything takes so long, just paperwork and a signature. But when you’re an administrator, you know it’s not just about the paper, but the liability and many other things.”

Firing on all four cylinders
While pursuing her MBA, she was also working with a group of researchers in myeloma, including Dr. Zhan, who accepted offers to move their work to Iowa. Dr. Frech was asked to join them but wanted to finish her degree first. Despite having never been to Iowa herself, she was interested. “I knew that Iowa was a very good place.” When she accepted an invitation for a visit in 2015, she met many faculty members here who confirmed her belief. “I was very impressed with the experience and the division and decided to take the job.” Her husband, a physician in private practice, sold his partnership and followed a few months later, taking a position in Cedar Rapids.

Frech2 - December 2018Now Dr. Frech puts all four of those degrees into practice. As manager of the Zhan Lab, she is essentially running the operations side of a small business, from keeping track of grant funding to making sure enough reagents are stocked. She also helps manage the staff, making sure international members have visa issues resolved and that new hires are integrated smoothly. Dr. Frech also works closely with the younger researchers, training them and helping them launch their own projects, providing supervision and advice where necessary.

What others see
Dr. Zhan calls himself “very lucky” to have Dr. Frech on his team, particularly because of her impact as an instructor. “Ivana is an invaluable mentor who helps our students to develop projects, ask focused questions, design experiments, and accurately interpret data. She emphasizes the importance of academic integrity and best lab practices, creating a positive lab culture. With many projects running simultaneously, it is easy for a student’s efforts to become mired or overwhelmed and escape notice. Under Ivana’s guidance, the efforts of our lab are efficiently organized and no one has the opportunity to slip through the cracks. We are training better scientists for her effort.”

One of those scientists, Dr. Rey Franqui-Machin, was glad to say a few words on her behalf as well. “She taught me discipline and how to think critically to answer the most difficult research questions. Her attention to technical detail and her capacity to convert data into a coherent and comprehensive story placed her among the most influential and positive mentors I had during my time at Iowa.”

Dr. Frech is satisfied with the work she gets to do at Iowa, though she is still curious about what she could bring to a more purely administrative role. That is down the road. Right now she is busy learning to handle the responsibilities of a different position: new mom to a baby boy born just last summer. Once she and her husband are able to sleep through the night uninterrupted, they will start to think about taking their son back to Italy for a visit.

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