Finding an innovative niche in the bottomless pit of science. An interview with animal diagnostics expert Ken Henderson.

ALN Magazine, a great resource for people who design, build and equip research animal facilities, recently spoke with Ken Henderson, Ph.D., the Senior Director of Laboratory Services at Charles River and we might add a member of Eureka’s Editorial Board. Folks at Charles River know Ken’s passion and expertise in animal diagnostics. But who new his dream job was floating in zero G and seeing the world from space? That he’s developing a vineyard in his back yard? Here’s the full Q&A, posted in advance of ALN’s 2016 TurnKey Conference May 24-25 in Oxon City, MD, where Ken will be speaking about a PCR-based pathogen surveillance and how it is reducing and eliminating the need for dirty bedding sentinel—a 3Rs plus. The interview was conducted by ALN Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Doughman. The article appared in their publication Feb. 10.

ALN: How did you get into laboratory animal science?

KH: My graduate school work was primarily with poultry viruses at The Ohio State University, but I would work with other laboratory species through coursework and laboratory research. My experience with developing recombinant proteins for diagnostics and vaccines at The Ohio State University landed me a position at Charles River in 1993 to develop serological assays for mouse and rat pathogens. As Charles River is also one of the world’s largest producers of specific-pathogen-free eggs for vaccine development, I got to bring my poultry experience back into use. My mentor pushed me into developing molecular based tools for monitoring the genetics of our rodent production colonies and the newly developing field of transgenics. This, plus my interest in pathogens led me to develop a gamut of molecular-based methods aimed at mitigating the effects of rodent pathogens on research quality.

ALN: What is a typical day like for you?

KH: A typical day involves a lot of communicating. I am part of the largest animal diagnostic laboratory in the world. As a result, I have the privilege of working with veterinarians, researchers, vivarium managers, and technicians in every part of the globe, both inside and outside Charles River, so I get to see and learn a lot of interesting things. With all the information and knowledge I am exposed to through my contacts, it really gives clarity about some of the challenges in maintaining pathogen-free vivariums today, and helps me with figuring out what to do to make things better. So helping facilities to exclude, detect, and eradicate infectious agents is really what my everyday activity is all about.

ALN: Why should people attend your session, Are Bedding Sentinel Programs Obselete?, at the 2016 TurnKey Conference?

KH: We estimate that a decade ago, roughly three quarters to a million mice and rats were used globally as soiled bedding sentinels. What if I told you we didn’t need sentinels anymore and that they never really worked that well for monitoring IVC racks? Much of our focus these days is to mitigate the number of animals used in research (“Reduce,” one of the most important of the 3Rs). Innovation does not occur in the shadows of complacency and there is always something at the core of a problem that drives change.

For me it was a little more than a decade ago, when veterinarians started to tell me and others within Charles River that they did not trust their quarantine program for rodents, which relied on soiled bedding sentinels to screen incoming animals for pathogens. After a few small studies and a larger one that we later published, it was clear they were correct. Bedding sentinels are not as efficient as we thought. We then moved forward to develop panels of molecular-based assays to improve detection of pathogens by directly testing the quarantined rodents, which in turn eliminated the need for sentinels. This has already produced a huge drop in the number of sentinel rodents used today. But even more exciting, in the last 5 years we have started interrogating exhaust air dust (EAD) to routinely detect the nucleic acid of pathogens that have infected rodents on IVC racks. EAD testing for pathogens not only will eliminate sentinel use, but it also detects agents that sentinels never or rarely detect. This is the focus of our session and why I am excited to share our work.

ALN: What was the most surprising thing you have learned in your career?

KH: Science is a huge bottomless pit of learning and there is no map to navigate it. When I was younger and knew I wanted to pursue the life sciences, I wondered how I could find a successful path and was always uncertain about how the next step would unfold. That is a pretty tough time in a young scientist’s life, not knowing how to get from point A to point B. What I have learned is that there are people out there who will eventually become your mentors, even though you may not have met them yet. I am embarrassed now to say that I remember my junior year in college, when I told my advisor that I thought all the important discoveries would be made before I graduated – what will there be left for me to discover? I remember her pantomiming and pretending to be inside a mass of substance, pushing outwards in different directions with her hands, while telling me that science is constantly expanding in different areas at different rates and there is no limit to how far you can progress in any direction.

Equally influential, my graduate school advisor was always there to encourage me when things were not working and I felt like giving up. Lastly, the director of our laboratory at Charles River was (is) excited about every new technology, and really mentored me through the steps of connecting dots together to identify and complete novel objectives. You’ll find your mentors one way or another, or they will find you, and they will chaperone you through that “bottomless pit” of Science at different times in your life.

ALN: If you could give advice to someone in the laboratory animal science field, what would it be?

KH: That’s a big field to make a blanket statement about, but there is certainly one thing that ties us all together, especially on days when the health is not perfect in the lives of someone we know. When we are busy taking images, preparing cages, procuring samples, running tests, preparing food formulation, cleaning tanks, etc., we are all playing a different role in finding a cure, or investigating a device or compound that could potentially improve the health and happiness of another’s life.We will only know a fraction of the people we eventually help, but we know enough people to see what a difference our work makes.

ALN: What do you like doing in your spare time?

KH: My wife calls me the man of a million hobbies. I like to learn. I guess if I didn’t, I’d be a pretty rotten scientist. I’ve dabbled in astrophotography, play a few musical instruments, have been challenged with learning Mandarin, work with stained glass, enjoy gardening, and have done almost every type of house project you can imagine. My latest adventure is a basement winery and I just finished trimming over a hundred dormant grape vines in my budding vineyard so I can prove to myself that some microbes in life are not so bad.

ALN: If you had to do something else for a living, what would it be?

KH: Growing up during the days of the Apollo missions, I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut. However, at 6’3″ I might be a little too tall, and I don’t like to spin in circles – not a good combination for an astronaut. I just want to float in zero G and see the world from space. I blew up many homemade rockets in my yard as a kid (not the ones you buy), and filled containers with hydrogen I made from water. My parents did not know half the stuff I did. My favorite movie as an adult is “October Sky” – if only I had access to rocket fuel as a kid.

ALN: Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of ALN?

KH: Life is too short to do everything, but you might as well try to do as much as you can with the time we’ve been given. The lab animal field is built on innovation, so bringing new experiences and imagination from outside your job into your job seems to be a common theme for everyone I meet who works in this community. Keeping ourselves thinking is important because there are a lot of people out there relying on our success, even if they don’t know who we are or the thousands of different ways we may be contributing.

How to cite:

Keeping an Eye on the Bugs. Eureka blog. Feb 24, 2016. Available: http://eureka.criver.com/keeping-an-eye-on-the-bugs/