Pebble Labs Lab Director Andrew Thran chats with a scientist in the Biolab on Entrada Drive. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Andrew Thran is the Lab Director for Pebble Labs in Los Alamos. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Andrew Thran, Lab Director for Pebble Labs at their Entrada Drive facility in Los Alamos, loves Northern New Mexico.
“It’s a hidden gem in the United States. I miss the ocean but being in the mountains totally makes up for it. Being here at this time as Pebble develops and grows has been an amazing opportunity for myself as well as a lot of people who are in the same boat as me. I got that amazing opportunity to get in on a start-up and in a really amazing culture,” Thran said.
He said Pebble Labs has great management.
“Our senior executives are all on the same page – wanting to move forward into a brave new world of biotechnology where we’re doing good for the world. We’re actually making products that are going to improve peoples’ lives but also protect the environment. We’re not going to make decisions based purely on the bottom line. We want to make a difference too. That’s the amazing opportunity for all of us here at Pebble Labs – that we can be part of something like that at its inception, in the early years, and help form this community around these core principles that we all do our best to support,” Thran said.
Originally from Lake Tahoe, Thran also loves plant biology. He was involved in construction quite a bit as a kid and got enticed into plant biology during what he thought was going to be my last year at Lake Tahoe Community before going on into construction. Lake Tahoe Community College. He went on to study botany and chemistry at Humboldt State University in Northern California.
“That’s where I really got my first taste of academic research and I decided at that point that I wanted to go to grad school and pursue a career in research and biology,” he said.
Armed with a Bachelor’s degree in Botany with a minor in Chemistry, Thran moved to Colorado State University for grad school, drawn by a combination of wanting to be in the Rockies and having an offer of a fellowship to start their PhD program. He originally planned to work in Colorado after finishing his Master’s degree program in 2015 but meanwhile he met and married Maria O’Donnell of Los Alamos.
Thran said he was actually dating Maria when the New Mexico Consortium biolab was being built. When driving past the biolab during visits to the O’Donnell family, Thran said he used to say that one day he was going to give up everything in Colorado and come to Los Alamos and work at the biolab.
“We got married in 2016. I saw what was happening down here but my real reason for moving here was to be close to Maria’s family,” he said. He interviewed with Dr. Richard Sayre in 2016 and in the fall of 2017, a technician position opened up. The couple now has two daughters – Willow, 3, and six-month old Violet.
“I really wanted to work with Dr. Sayre – that was the original idea. When I interviewed with him, I said I want to work with him. I got hired as Pebble’s first full-time technician. They had a couple of part-time technicians that were working on various projects but I was the first fulltime research technician. By spring of 2018 I had gone to about 50/50 bench work lab technician research and lab management,” Thran said.
He began doing small management projects such as curating collections of stocks, organizing training sessions with the other technicians and working on admin and human resources-related projects. He said he had some project management and coordination experience in the past from working in construction and there was a great need to have some organization within the company.
“A lot of times you get someone who knows admin or knows botany but to try and marry the two is tough. I attribute my skills in organization and operations to growing up with my dad who was a general contractor. I had my own landscaping business that I did parallel with his business and so I had to keep spreadsheets and records and receipts and I knew how to do good recordkeeping,” Thran said. “Throughout 2018, it became apparent that Pebble was growing and the needs for a lab manager were growing and so I’m more fulltime lab manager now. As of last week, I was appointed as the lab director overseeing the general facility operations and working with all the departments here. It’s a great opportunity. I’m really excited to be part of the shaping and developing of this organization as it grows into a world-class biotech organization.”
Thran said it’s really interesting to see the Los Alamos community diversify.
“We’re going from a hard core, physical science national laboratory to now building up bioinformatics and computational biology, and associated with that is the need to have a web lab to test some of those things and all of a sudden you have biotech start-ups centered here and they all play off each other,” he said. “The technology is tied together really well – computer science, engineering, biotech – they’re all working together.”
Thran said some of the things being used on a daily basis such as flow cytometry were actually invented in Los Alamos. He said a lot of technology that’s being generated by the engineers is being used by the biologists now so there’s a lot of “cross talk”.
“It’s a huge benefit to Los Alamos to be able to retain scientists that are of different disciplines. Something that’s always been a fear in town is what if the Labs lose funding, what happens to everybody – what if you don’t diversify and have these other facilities that are here,” he said.
Thran noted that Pebble Labs has brought people from all from all over the world to the area as well as bringing former residents back to live and work.
“It’s morphing into this academic embassy for people from all over the world with interesting backgrounds and expertise,” he said.
Pebble Labs’ international network includes alliances with the world’s most respected scientists at institutions such as Queensland University of Technology, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (Florida Atlantic University), Johns Hopkins University, Colorado State University, Penn State University and New Mexico State University.
In the big picture, Thran said the company believes the planet will soon need to support 10 billion people and that immediate actions need to be taken to create a foundation for more sustainable food supplies and better disease control.
“Pebble is looking for solutions to some of those huge challenges and believes its research and breakthroughs can save millions of lives and allow people everywhere to prosper with science-based, planet-friendly solutions to make the world a better place,” Thran said.