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News Room

Challenging the Status Quo of Sterile Environments: An Interview with Terra Kremer

October 26 2016 - 2:20 pm

Here is the latest in the series of conversations with inspirational Utah women in business. I’m Foreste Peterson. I set out to speak to the women behind the business, research and ideas that are changing the world. They share their work, thoughts and advice. Note the opinions expressed by interviewees do not necessarily represent those of GOED, but they do promise to be interesting.

I sat down with Terra Kremer, corporate relationship manager at Nelson Laboratories. We chatted about the path she took to get into medical device testing and what she’s working on now to help move the health sciences industry forward.

What brought you to Utah?

My parents brought me here from California because they loved the seasons.

What’s been your career path? How did you get started in the life sciences industry?

I am someone who has a lot of ideas. I try to think big and innovate. That being said, I spent a lot of time figuring out what exactly I wanted to do. I went to the University of Utah and studied chemistry. While I was in school, I wasn’t able to pay my bills, so I started waiting tables, which introduced me to the wine industry.

After I graduated, I moved to California and worked at U.C. Davis to study oenology, where I got my first glimpse into chemistry in a work setting. However, I realized that working at a winery in reality wasn’t very glamorous and that line of work wasn’t for me.

I then returned to Utah to help my sick younger brother. In the meantime, I started my first job in the health sciences industry at the DNA/Peptide Synthesis lab. I was still not in love with this job so I kept exploring.  Eventually I found myself at Nelson Labs where I joined the Sales Team. Right away, I loved the culture and was passionate about my new position that integrated business and science.

Can you explain what exactly you do and how it has an impact on medicine and patient outcomes?

My job, in particular, is to design test plans for medical devices, pharma and tissues to assure sterility. At Nelson we make sure our clients’ processes are in control and repeatable. As an example, I strive to ensure that there is no bioburden – bugs – on doctors’ tools that could potentially make patients sick. In broader terms, my job is to save lives!

You recently published a study of industry processes. What’s the lay person version of your study?  

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First you need to understand “environmental monitoring” which concerns micro-organisms in the air, as well as “bioburden” which concerns micro-organisms on the surface of the manufactured product. Say there are an unacceptable number of bugs on a device from the manufacturing environment.

Given that bugs land, colonize, and grow on product surfaces, my study tried to prove that an increase in bugs in the air would lead to an increase in bugs on the product. The results of my study showed a statistically insignificant correlation, which is what industry has long believed. However, there is a pervasive assumption among regulators that there is a correlation between the two.

The next phase of the study will be to involve more companies to see if they can find a correlation on a broader scale. We can then better hone in on what makes sense for environmental monitoring and regulatory guidelines.

How did you come up with the idea for the study?
The underlying idea behind my study was to sell more bioburden testing (a test that measures the amount of bugs on a device). In other words, if there was in fact a correlation between the amount of bugs in the air and the amount of bugs on the product, it would potentially bring more business to my company.

Were you and your research partner [Ravi Patel of Johnson & Johnson] predisposed to find the answer that would lead to more sales?

We were aware of that potential bias on my part, but Ravi represented the opposite goal so we applied several different techniques to analyze the data and challenged each other’s assumptions at every stage.

Your analysis was counter to accepted regulatory wisdom, and when you presented it at a national conference, your study generated some controversy. How do you overcome resistance to new ideas?

My “go-to” technique is to diffuse, and then ask probing questions to understand the opponent’s point of view. My standard response is, “Interesting point, but we’re going to continue investigating and include your stance in our studies.”

I can’t say how important it is to be brave enough to raise your hand when there is a problem, and ask “What about this?”

What is the most rewarding aspect of your line of work?

There are three parts to this question for me. The most rewarding aspect from a societal standpoint is that I help to change lives. From a personal standpoint, I feel extremely proud because I know that my son looks up to me. From a professional standpoint, I love what I do, and I love going to work every day.

Speaking of young people, how do we get young women interested in STEM and technology jobs?

My firm belief is to get young women started early, even before the 4th grade. Mentoring in science should take place every year to get them thinking about what they are interested in and where their passions lie. Depending on what those passions may be, incorporate them into science fair projects and help these girls understand their significance.

As a woman in business, what are the challenges you face vs. those faced by your male counterparts? Are these challenges unique to the life sciences industry, to Utah, or to business in general in our country?

Unfortunately, we as women have this stigma as being highly emotional and volatile, and crying is seen as a form of weakness. Because of this, society sometimes discounts our ability to work better than, or as well as our male counterparts. In my opinion, women can be their own worst enemies. Given the different level of expectation placed on women, it is key to find a work-life balance.  Find the organization and the boss who understands the need for flexible schedules. Those organizations and bosses will in the long run get more productivity and loyalty from their female staff.

What advice would you have for someone interested in the life sciences industry?

Your career path will find you if you look at a problem and find a niche to solve it. In order to be successful in life, you should get excited about what you do. You should want to come to work every day. If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re not going to win. At the end of the day, this is your life. Work because you love it. Lastly, look for mentors and sponsors – people who will support you as you raise your hand and make your voice heard.

What do you tell people when they ask what it’s like to live in Utah?

I never want to live anywhere else.