Q&A with Douglas Mans

Director, Environmental Molecular Sciences Division and EMSL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Douglas Mans

Employees you oversee: 168

What is the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory?  

The Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory or EMSL, is a Department of Energy Office of Science National User Facility funded and managed within the Biological and Environmental Research Program. 

As a User Facility, scientists around the world can partner with us to use our world-class laboratory space, expertise, and equipment—for free—if their research proposal is accepted through our peer-review process. EMSL’s vision is to empower the research community to create a predictive understanding of the living Earth system through our mission to work with and support researchers to study the living and non-living processes and understand their functions and interdependence in a systems context for energy and environmental security and infrastructure resilience. 

Given the expansiveness of the EMSL vision and mission, our science focus and capabilities are equally as broad spanning fundamental research into cellular functions at the single protein level all the way up to ecosystem modeling of the transformation, flow, and transport of chemical and molecular components that are the primary drivers for environmental and ecosystem functioning and responses to change. 

How did you land your current role? How long have you been in it? How did your pharmaceutical industry background prepare you for this role?  

Currently I have been the EMSL director for 2.5 years, since starting in April 2019. 

I first became aware of and soon thereafter enamored with EMSL precisely because of my pharmaceutical background. My career in the pharmaceutical industry spanned thirteen plus years. 

For eight of those years I had been involved in and led global teams focused on seeking out and developing disruptive technologies from industries and sectors adjacent to and even far removed from the pharmaceutical sector that could fundamentally reshape how drug discovery, development, and manufacturing were performed in an industry historically averse to change. 

Leading teams in this space forced me to constantly be learning new areas of science, operational and business models, connecting disparate and unrelated fields, working with a wide variety of disciplines to formulate breakthrough opportunities and tractable plans to pursue the opportunities, and balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders. All of these skills and experiences have proven to be indispensable in leading EMSL. 

Which brings me to how I landed the role. As it turns out, one of the very early external engagements I pursued in the area of drug manufacturing focused on novel applications for continuous manufacturing (as opposed to batch manufacturing – similar to a chef preparing a batch of soup in a large pot) using electrochemistry (using electricity to drive chemical reactions). 

Connecting dots with research efforts in these spaces brought me to PNNL and the work in unrelated flow battery R&D that is intended for grid scale energy storage. As part of this partnership, I was visited and utilized capabilities resident in EMSL for key aspects of the development work. It was here that my passion and joy in exploring diverse scientific fields and bringing them to bear in novel ways to advance scientific and technical understanding found a calling.  

That also paired very nicely with my own personal values and desires to help not only understand but also preserve our Earth, somewhat selfishly for my own kids and their kids’ kids, but also because this is Earth is a truly beautiful place that deserves to be shared with others. 

Why should the Tri-Cities care about EMSL?  

Although EMSL focuses on basic or fundamental research, there are real world applications and outcomes that impact the Tri-cities and the communities that reside here making a living. 

Understanding the underlying molecular and chemical interactions that drive the observable events in our everyday lives with respect to our environment have direct applications in economic, health and energy security. 

For example, research that EMSL supports delves into understanding various regional soil and subsurface (below the dirt) properties that control nutrient and water availability. This understanding can be used to create models to predict how local environments would be expected to behave under various conditions now and in the future. Such insight is valuable in planning future agricultural and residential land usage. 

Similarly, understanding the properties of microscopic particles in the air released by pollution and wildfires for example, can be used to evaluate impacts to adult and children’s respiratory and allergy outcomes as well as direct economic impacts. For example, the cause of “smoke wine” due to interactions of the developing grapes in vineyards with the smoke particles released from wildfires sometimes hundreds of miles away.  

Lastly, I offer up a future opportunity that work supported at EMSL provides. All the plant life on earth, and importantly our agricultural crops rely on beneficial interactions with microbes. 

Understanding the molecular language that plants and microbes use to talk to each other to support healthy crop development, even in times of stress (for example drought, extreme heat, or nutrient poor soil), provides not only opportunities to nurture those interactions but also dramatically reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides saving farmers money, increasing yields, and proactively planning for future crop land usage all while reducing harmful run-off of the applied treatments into local water waterways. 

What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?  

I will give you two because I think they are intimately related. Curiosity and humbleness. 

Curiosity to continually ask questions and challenge assumptions.  

As soon as you accept assumptions and historical norms, even those created by you as a leader, without a curious questioning attitude you open the door for stagnation and ultimately irrelevance as others, competitors and partners, pass you by. 

Questioning and being curious does not by default make something irrelevant or broken. It does, however, constantly ensure that opportunities for improvement and even better, opportunities for transformative positive change are not missed because of assumptive behavior. 

But coupled with this curiosity is an inherent humbleness that is required. Being open and honest about what you don’t know and need input on from those wiser and smarter than you are critical during a leader’s questioning. 

This humbleness in seeking input extends broadly too being as diverse and inclusive in your evidence gathering as possible. 

The world is too complex and too fast moving for one to naively presume they themselves or a select few have the totality of knowledge to bring to bear on topics of concern. And being humble in seeking expert input does not diminish your value as a leader. 

It is the exact opposite, as you are better prepared to spot disparate and non-obvious solutions to challenges you would have missed. 

What is the biggest challenge facing research laboratories such as EMSL?  

In general, as in most every business and research enterprise, inertia and complacency are a constant temptation to be warded off. 

But specifically, for research laboratories such as EMSL, probably the biggest set of challenges is operating at a capacity and pace to match the accelerating advances in science, technology and society in general. The research questions that R&D facilities throughout the world are pursuing are becoming almost exponentially more challenging with every passing year. 

Combined with the digitization of virtually every aspect of our lives, this means that there are always orders of magnitude more questions and experiments to tackle than we can perform. From a U.S. competitive perspective then, our ability to answer many more of those questions quicker provides a strategic advantage in formulating favorable policy, creating new job sectors and opportunities, and improving quality of life in a sustainable manner. 

If you had a magic wand, what would you change? 

Wow, that is a loaded question…. Without delving into hot button topics and issues of which the list seems to continually grow. 

I think the one thing I would change is how we go about public (and private) discourse on important issues, from local/regional, to national, to global concerns. I am not suggesting that facts rule the day or that somehow scientific data and logic are the ultimate in debate. 

Emotions, feelings, and experiences are just as valid in supporting differing views. Recognizing and appreciating that topics and issues are so much more nuanced than the current binary right versus wrong, us versus them approach that results in these extreme levels of vitriol and the polarization of group think is not healthy and counterproductive. 

Instead of taking the view of what’s right and logical; oftentimes taking the view of what works can bring people together in productive and constructive dialog. 

What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time? 

It is no longer about you. 

Harkening back to my answer about leadership characteristics and humbleness. There are all types of leadership personalities ranging from the quiet, introspective to the flamboyant and extroverted, deeply analytical to gut instinct and passionate.  

Yet regardless of the personality type, ALL leadership positions are fundamentally about others and working through others to make the impossible possible. Whether it is inspiring them to raise up a call to arms, equipping them with confidence and skills to embrace new challenges, clearing bottlenecks and bureaucratic log jams, or empowering and supporting them in executing strategic plans. 

Recognizing this commonality early and embracing that reality will dramatically accelerate and amplify the positive outcomes and productivity of the teams you lead regardless of level and size. 

Who are your role models or mentors?  

My dad, my former manager John Baldoni, and my wife. 

I suspect none of these people know or realize that they serve in this role for me. Rather than deliberate mentor/mentee relationships I have found great value in developing close relationships with people in which I can observe their behaviors and ask probing/insightful questions in the moment without the need for prescribed and/or planned times for interactions. 

From my dad I learned and appreciated the value in simply trying something. And if you mess up, that is ok. Scrap it and try a different approach learning from the first failure. 

It is better to start and move directionally where you want to go even if you are not sure how to get there than it is to remain stagnant. 

From John, I appreciate the ability to question the status quo productively and constructively and to never lose sight of the continual quest for learning new things. 

And from my wife, she has been the consummate inspiration in re-inventing myself as I watched her with such determination and quiet poise develop and move from a job based squarely on her degree in “old-school” graphic design to a cutting-edge researcher and practitioner in user experience, a field of design interaction that did not even exist 10 years ago. 

How do you keep your employees (or team members) motivated? 

I look to always provide true empowerment opportunities to the team and the laboratory scientists working with us in approaching challenging work. 

The key words being empowerment and challenging work. These two words – empowerment and challenging – sound straight forward enough. But there are nuances and implications for what these mean in actual day to day activities that can get overlooked but which are extremely important in sustaining levels of motivation. 

From a challenging work perspective there is two parallel tracks to keep in mind. The first is the actual purpose or intent of the work. People need to feel inspired and excited about what they are doing and where the work is leading us. Working for DOE, that inspirational groundwork is well established. 

Within that mission space, however, there is always room to look at problems in new and exciting ways which provide a fresh opportunity for staff and co-workers to be inspired. This inspiration though needs to carefully balanced and managed to ensure that level of the challenge is appropriate to not frustrate and/or overwhelm people. 

With a sufficiently inspirational challenge for people to focus on, I look to match that with a healthy dose of empowerment. In my mind empowerment goes beyond not micro-managing and letting people work independently. To truly empower people, I find it extremely helpful to empower people to fail as well. I do not have all the answers. 

In fact, for many things, we work on, we don’t have the answers for how to best approach tackling the challenges. 

Creating an environment where everyone sees that failing is part of the job and owning those failures in a learning setting truly lets people embrace challenges; feel inspired to tackle them in creative and efficient ways; and appreciate that performance is not always about what you did exactly perfectly the first time but rather how you continue to improve for the next set of inspirational challenges. 

How did you decide to pursue the career that you are working in today?  

I wish I could say that it was all part of a master plan. But the reality was more from a culmination of events and opportunities. 

However, there are four guiding principles if you will that I use when contemplating career moves: exploring science broadly, making an impact, creative freedom, and helping others succeed. 

As progressed in my career the guiding principles helped shape and direct what opportunities to pursue with the various principles holding more weight than the others at different moments in time. 

I have had a life-long passion for science starting from my earliest days in grade school. I have never lost that passion for learning about science. Every career opportunity has been weighed against whether the position would move me closer to or further away from the sciences. 

All the roles in my career path have consistently kept me very close to the science albeit at varying levels of depth. Having an impact is about improving humankind’s quality of life broadly. Early in my career, pharmaceuticals were a logical and very direct tact to accomplish this. 

This concept of impact has evolved for me to something much more profound and dare I say existential given human interactions with the environment and the long-term viability of that interaction. Spotting interesting connections and applying concepts and skills from disparate areas of research and work continually inspires and drives me. 

If you look at my prior roles, they all have created space for me to apply what I have learned in previous roles within my new role at the time. As such my experiences have allowed me to develop into more of a “M”-type skill set – one deep across a breadth of skill areas. As opposed to the more traditional “T”-skill set with deep expertise in one area of work/research. 

Lastly, despite my highly introverted personality, I enjoy and take great pride in helping and more importantly watching others develop and succeed against challenges they might have felt were insurmountable. 

The EMSL position provides a great balance against all four of these guiding principles. 

How do you measure success in your workplace?  

I have two internal metrics that I use to gauge my success on at this point in my career. 

The first is based on how many staff and team members I work with are promoted into more senior roles. When this happens, not only have I met some of my guiding principles, but it also means that I have sufficiently motivated people with challenging work and empowered them to grow into roles to tackle these challenges to the point that others now value and seek out these people for helping them address their own sets of challenges and opportunities. 

The second, related to the first is more of a long-term goal I set for my success. 

That is to make myself redundant. This sounds worse than it is. 

I have a good friend and former colleague who stated the same goal when he and I were co-directors of a global team we were leading. It has stuck with me ever since as that is the truest measure of success for me personally. 

The idea behind the statement is that I will move on, as we all will 

Knowing that someone as passionate and excited about leading the organization has been developed through working with me and the leadership team, means the future is in good hands. Both measures are about the development of people. 

At the end of the day, it is the people who are inspired and willing to give it their all alongside you that make a lasting impact. 

What do you consider your leadership style to be? 

I have participated in numerous personality assessments over my career.  

A recent self-assessment I took resonates with me the most and is consistently reflected in my personal ongoing assessment of interactions with the people I lead in day-to-day interactions. 

Without intentionally promoting and having absolutely no vested interest in the assessment, Ray Dalio of Bridgewater wealth management and hedge fund fame and Prof. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, have developed a personality assessment that anyone can take online for free at www.principlesyou.com. 

In taking this assessment my three most aligned leadership personalities were (1) Quiet Leader, (2) Shaper, and (3) Inventor. Each of these archetypes has a description associated as well as importantly key pitfall and growth areas to be aware. 

I found the results simultaneously interesting and rewarding as the three are reflective and reinforcing of the four guiding principles I have followed in my career development. 

How do you balance work and family life?  

As I have continued to grow in my career and family, I have become less enamored with the concept of work life balance. 

As if there are separate compartments that neatly bucket work activities from one’s family activities where one can easily turn off and on focus between the two. I find that work life integration is a bit more appropriate concept, at least for me. 

Rarely do I find myself able to completely shut off thinking about new ideas, concepts, or challenges back at the office in the evenings or weekends. Similarly, I rarely can go a single day let alone an entire work week where I am not thinking about family life. 

This integration then becomes less about managing one’s time and instead about managing one’s energy. Time is finite and irrecoverable once spent. By managing my energy and interests at any given moment I can best utilize the time resources I have available. 

That may mean that my energy levels for engaging in work productively are simply too low at various times and I choose to focus on family aspects. It also means that there are significant amounts time where energy for both my work and family life are high and synergistic. For example, engaging in discussions with family and friends in areas completely disconnected from my direct work interests often provide intriguing insight, connections, and approaches to work related opportunities. 

Effectively recognizing where one’s energy levels are at any given moment in time are critical in allowing me to integrate career and family. That said there are also fundamentally times when I need to unplug completely from work and recharge those energy levels more completely. 

This takes concerted effort with my family to proactively plan and incorporate these breaks to allow me to comfortably be “present in the moment” during these times away from work. 

What do you like to do when you are not at work?  

Given my approach to work life integration I would say it is rare that I am “not at work.”  

When I am not in the office or engaging with staff and colleagues, I enjoy a broad range of activities, some of which may sound counterproductive but help me maintain my energy level balance. Watch my young boys’ sports and school activities, my wife and I enjoy exploring restaurants and new food experiences, manual labor activities including exercising but also house renovation/construction work (currently focused on erecting an outdoor fireplace and pizza oven), reading a wide variety of scientific research across as many disparate fields as possible (keeps my mind on edge and exposed to concepts and ideas for unique connections), and lastly sometimes I enjoy literally sitting and staring into space to let my mind simply wonder and ponder. 

What’s your best time management strategy? 

I would refer one back to my thoughts on work life integration. I find I can be 10 times more productive just by acknowledging my energy levels. But there are times where work simply must be done to meet deadlines. To help me with this and ensure I spend my limited time and more importantly energy on the most impactful/valuable activities, I use a simple but effective color-coding strategy to assign and track meetings and/or requests of my time while during work hours. 

The color coding captures three high level buckets – required meetings/deliverables; requests of my time; and personal time. The idea is to be able to quickly see on a week-by-week basis where I am spending my time. 

The required times can be viewed as the “cost” for being in the role I am in, sort of the base business expectations. The goal then is to maximize the time spent on the most impactful or valuable work and avoid the tendency to focus on near-term, often firefighting, activities. 

Most always this means actively looking to maximize the personal time over the requests of my time. Sometimes there are opportunistic synergies where the most valuable use of my time overlaps with a request for my time – a win-win scenario. 

This simple color coding then allows me to briefly see the scheduled activity and ideally pair it with my energy levels for optimal use of my time. 

Best tip to relieve stress? 

In the moment or during the actual workday – Breathe. 

Get away from your desk and just walk for a bit to let your mind wander. 

When not at work, have a hobby or routine that you do regularly to refocus your mind on something else. You don’t realize it, but subconsciously while you are focusing on the other activity, your mind is busy toiling away on how its previous experiences can be used to help address the current problems/opportunities that were leading to the stress. 

What’s your favorite podcast? Most-used app? Or favorite website? Favorite book? (Feel free to choose one or all)  

By nature I do not engage in social media as I am not convinced the perceived reality such forums conjure in one’s mind to be the most healthy. 

I do though use LinkedIn as I find it a valuable professional resource in connecting with contacts across my network that I have worked to build over the years in my various roles and companies. I do tend to read a fair bit especially with respect to leadership and strategy. Some of the most useful books include: 

“Range,” by David Epstein 

“Innovating: A Doer’s Manifesto,” by Luis Perez-Breva 

“Time to Think,” by Nancy Kline 

“Farsighted,” by Steven Johnson 

“When,” by Daniel Pink 

“Think Again,” by Adam Grant 

“Loonshots,” by Safi Bahcall 

“Useful Delusions,” by Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler 

“The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors,” by Brad Feld and Dave Jilk 

Do you have a personal mantra, phrase or quote you like to use?  

“Pessimists are generally right, but optimists change the world” and “If you see a bandwagon, it is already too late to jump on.” 

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