Take a Walk with a Lab GuyApr 26, 2023
If you are looking for Stephen Brindley, MS, the lab might be the only place you find him sitting.
15,900 steps a day. 111,400 steps a week. 200 miles a month. And these totals get higher when Brindley is on research trips to Guatemala. With a book in hand, you will find him walking. From his home to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and back. Across campus on lunch breaks, across burnt sugarcane fields and basketball courts in Guatemala or carrying lab samples to processing locations.
Brindley is on the move.
Working as a senior professional research assistant at the CU School of Pharmacy and within the Environmental and Occupational Health Department at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH), Brindley is a sought after “lab guy.”
From warehouse to lab
Having his dreams of going to veterinarian school thwarted and delayed, Brindley took up work in a warehouse after graduating with a degree in microbiology from Colorado State University (CSU). Aiming the last arrow in his quiver at vet school, Brindley earned a master’s in biomedical sciences from CSU. This, however, landed him not in vet school, but in medical research labs at UC Denver.
Brindley joined Lee Newman’s team at the ColoradoSPH in 2011. Newman, MD, MA, distinguished professor and director of the Center for Health, Work & Environment (CHWE), was working to understand chronic beryllium disease (CBD), an incurable lung disease most found in workers exposed to the element on the job. Brindley worked in the lab analyzing samples and performing cell culture studies related to CBD, asbestos and mesothelioma.
On the move again, Brindley studied polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons with Berrin Serdar, MD, PhD, and oil and gas with John Adgate, PhD, MSPH, in 2014 and 15. That same year he rejoined Newman’s group as they began research on another chronic disease – chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu). Most common in agricultural workers along the equator, CKDu is a life-threatening condition. In partnership with Pantaleon, one of Latin American’s largest agribusinesses, Brindley and a team from CHWE travel to Pantaleon’s sugarcane fields in Guatemala to conduct voluntary research on the workers to understand the risk factors for this disease.
Conduit for research
Where do these research processes begin? With the samples for the lab, one might think. But, it actually begins before that.
Not only is Brindley constantly moving, but his work is what allows the research to move along.
As the lab scientist, he is the quiet conduit streamlining the project between each of the early stages. He is involved in the early planning stages for each data collection trip, advising the team on the cost of supplies needed (machines, test tubes, vials, storage containers, shipment and transport of samples, etc.). He collects and labels samples on the ground in Guatemala before sending them to test facilities and back to his lab in Colorado. Once back home, Brindley analyzes the biomarkers in his processed samples, then transfers the data to the statisticians and awaits his next trip. Brindley also trains young scientists how to work in the labs on campus.
Field work MacGyver
“I just like what I do,” said Brindley. “I'm good at it and I get to work with people that are a lot smarter than me. I like the troubleshooting aspects, the experiments, and putting together equipment.”
On a recent project with Dr. Adgate, the research team wanted to avoid paying for an environmental case for the DustTrak and MicroAeth machines that measure particulate matter and black carbon. Brindley made cases (with the help of the campus machine shop) to get the research team exactly what they needed for a fraction of the cost. “That was an adventure, it's just new every day,” he said.
On a recent trip to Guatemala, the research team was struggling to keep their sample machines at a low enough temperature to operate. The gymnasium they were working was over 32 degrees Celsius with 85 percent humidity.
“Yeah, that's an example of my handiwork. The machine kept overheating because it only works up to 30 degrees, and it was getting up to about 31 degrees. I suggested putting ice packs in a cooler and placing the machines in them and that’s what we did,” said Brindley. His solution worked, by the way.
Identity for a ‘lab guy’
Brindley, who got his first passport specifically to go on these Guatemala trips, is an invaluable member of the team. “He dives right into the culture and community in Guatemala,” said researcher and ColoradoSPH assistant professor Jaime Butler-Dawson, PhD, MPH. “He plays basketball with the workers and goes to church with them at the sugar mill.”
“We have seen him transform over the years. He’s been working in a lab for so long, it’s a very controlled environment. When he joined us in the field that was jarring for him at first, but ultimately, he really embraced it. He is such an adaptable teammate, ready for whatever challenge,” said researcher and instructor Lyndsay Krisher, DrPH.
How then should we categorize this MacGyver? The walking lab guy moving behind the scenes of research Lab guy is not the first description he would prefer. One of the things Brindley enjoys most about his work is the family life it allows him.
“People talk about what they identify as. I identify as a dad. I'm a scientist too, but most importantly, I am a dad.”
Written by Laura Veith, communications and media program manager at the Center for Health, Work & Environment based at the Colorado School of Public Health.