Understanding the importance of scientific advancement: An interview with Christian Newcomer

Today we’d like to introduce you to Christian (Chris) Newcomer, VMD, MS, DACLAM, who is a recent addition to PRIM&R’s Board of Directors.

Dr. Newcomer is the executive director of the Association for Assessment  and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC International) and has participated in AAALAC’s review activities for the past 27 years. Prior to his appointment at AAALAC International, he held academic and leadership positions in laboratory animal medicine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts-New England Medical Center, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Veterinary Resources Program at the National Institutes of Health, and The Johns Hopkins University. He is a past president of the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine (ACLAM) and of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS), and a past vice president of the AAALAC International Council on Accreditation. He was a member of PRIM&R’s 2012 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) Conference Planning Committee and is co-chairing the 2013 IACUC Conference Planning Committee. Since 1989, he has frequently participated as faculty of PRIM&R IACUC Conferences.

Avery Avrakotos (AA): When and why did you join the field? 
Dr. Chris Newcomer (CN): I effectively became interested in laboratory animal medicine in 1974 as a veterinary student at the University of Pennsylvania. My interests wandered as a veterinary student because veterinary medicine is rich with enticing opportunities, and my first position was in large animal medicine in the department of veterinary sciences at Penn State. However, the large diversity of species in laboratory animal medicine, my interest in science, and the importance of scientific discovery to our own interests and stewardship of the planet drew me back to the lab animal medicine specialty.

AA: What skills are particularly helpful in a job like yours? 
CN: I think the skill set that has proven helpful for my job also applies widely for many other positions. All aspects of communication have been very important in my current, and many previous, positions; this includes context, clarity, brevity, transparency, inclusivity, and non-equivocation whenever possible. Similar qualities apply to decision-making and I would add the importance of using an evidenced- based process, soliciting and incorporating information from diverse perspectives, and ensuring an acceptable outcome. I would also be remiss if I neglected to offer the obvious: operating with honesty, admitting to, and (hopefully) quickly learning from mistakes have been the mainstays for me operating in leadership positions.

AA: Tell us about one or more articles, books, or documents that have influenced your professional life. 
CN: Two books published at the beginning of my career had a big impact on my professional preparation and later commitments. The first was Doctor Rat (1976) by William Kotzwinkle, who became really well known through his other books and the movie ET. Doctor Rat made it very clear that scientists (and I, as their partner) would have to stand up to the very sophisticated manipulation of public opinion through poignant, deceptive artistic interpretations. The second book is well-known to all, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1979), which guaranteed that the discussion of the ethics of research animal use would become an integral component of my career. Our community has made some inroads in this area, but too many remain uncommitted to the cause of public education, allowing ignorance to prevail.

AA: Have there been any PRIM&R events or talks that you have attended that have significantly impacted your approach to your work? If so, what were they and how did they influence you? 
CN: Charlie McCarthy’s presentation at the first PRIM&R IACUC Conference on the implementation of the revised and fortified Public Health Service (PHS) Policy was an eye-opener. Only a handful of programs had the resident professional and technical talent, organizational structure, and commitment to meet the intent of the Policy promptly. It was clear that the changes engendered by the PHS Policy would vastly improve animal care and use, and that it would help research programs that depend on animals provide the impetus for professional program and teamwork development in many disciplines. This afforded an explosion in leadership, and provided opportunities for leaders to cultivate others and grow the image of success. Rarely is a generation given such a prime opportunity to leverage and accelerate success and know they are doing a fine service to the advancement of science. Frank Loew, former dean of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and later president of Becker College, gave extraordinary talks on several occasions at PRIM&R; these always reminded us that intellectual discourse and rigorous conclusions thrive on the civil expression of diverse viewpoints without ideological filtration. That approach has proven to be very beneficial to me personally and has been a guiding principle of PRIM&R in my experience.

AA: How has membership in PRIM&R’s community of research ethics professionals helped you to advance in your career? 
CN: PRIM&R’s record in education, professional development, and existence as avenue for growing consensus through exchange of ideas has been outstanding for those involved in IACUC oversight and policy implementation. The collective confidence and competence of the PRIM&R IACUC community allows institutional problems to be solved efficiently and proportionally to need. As a member of this community, I have been better equipped to advise and help institutions, and have benefited from feedback on my own ideas before launching new initiatives or corrective measures. This has saved valuable time which I turned to other uses.

AA: Why did you agree to serve on PRIM&R’s Board of Directors? 
CN: I applaud and admire PRIM&R for the role it has played in advancing research ethics and I was interested in working in the leadership to advance the mission. Further, I was very interested in learning more about the issues on the human subject protections side of PRIM&R because I have participated as a human subject in several studies since 1974 and believe that it is inevitable that scientific developments will accelerate the movement of products into human trials in the future. The system of oversight support for humans and animals needs to be robust and continue to evolve, and I hope to contribute to PRIM&R’s leadership in this area.

AA: What advice have you found most helpful in your career?
CN: I think that it would be to remember the importance of science. Scientific advancement is central to our efforts and should bring a sense of urgency to our efforts.

AA: What is something you know now that you wish someone had told you when you first entered this field? Or, what is an example(s) of a lesson you had to learn the hard way?
CN: I was not well prepared for the patience, lobbying, and occasional tradeoffs that were required to accomplish goals that I regarded as obviously laudable, reasonable, and easily accessible; but, I cannot make the claim that my mentors neglected to alert me to this. In the end, I think we all find one or two predilections or approaches that we need to curb to be effective. I’ve worked on my own persistently with some success. I am still a work in progress and can live with that.