Last Friday I went on a tour of the FDA’s new headquarters in White Oak, Maryland. My main motivation to go was because I knew getting research experience in as a student would be valuable when searching for a job after graduation or applying to graduate schools. Therefore I figured spending my Friday afternoon exploring a possible employer would be worth it. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had only been to Fermi Lab in Chicago, Illinois. There the exterior was great; the facility is a park containing its own herd of bison in addition to the largest particle accelerator prior to 2009. The majority looked nice; especially the places that were looked at on public tours, but some of the laboratories I saw were a bit on the dingy side, something I was scared of seeing at the FDA as well.
Unfortunately, when I caught my first glimpse of the FDA I was again somewhat disappointed. What I saw looked like the façade of a large suburban high school, though it did seem to be sporting a golf course on the front lawn. My memory harkened back to dim cramped labs and I began to expect an underfunded government run facility filled with high school level equipment and a tour guide echoing the phrase “Unlike the private companies, we can’t afford…” But soon we took a turn in through the truck entrance I was shocked by what I saw. The facility was massive! It was set downhill of the highway and surrounded by hills of dirt from construction project which hid the majority from the road.
Once I was on the tour I was continually amazed. Our tour guide was one of the people in charge of the design and the continuing changes that occur in a laboratory. At the same time as showing us the facilities, he explained the importance of aesthetic principles that went into the design. “Even students can sit next to windows.” Okay, so maybe that was not the most amazing thing I heard, but design considerations such as thin buildings in which you can see all the way through, light wells inspired by the pyramid at the Louvre for increased natural light and being built on 12 feet on solid concrete for decreased building movement because of the highway outside and nearby power plant were all nice things to hear in addition to all of the work that was being done.
Though the FDA does not do research in order to sell products, it does a lot of work checking the claims and safety of products already on the market or things that want or need FDA approval. An example was keeping the frequencies of medical equipment and commercial products separate. Thank the FDA when your future pace maker doesn’t stop as you walk through a scanner at the airport. Another safety issue was controlling the radiation output of commercial products. According to our tour guide, some old TV’s once produced enough radiation to make an x-ray of a hand if x-ray paper was laid on the opposite side. In addition, these are the people you want to blame if you’re unhappy that you can’t open your microwave while it is running. Even though working at the FDA does not come with the exciting possibility of inventing a product and selling it for millions as a private company would, the government benefits and steady employment make up for it. The FDA also doesn’t work with things of national security importance. So, is it slightly boring that I won’t be working with anthrax? Yes. Is it nice that I don’t have to worry about breaking a test tube and dying from anthrax? Yes.
This may seem like just a boy being giddy – to be honest it is – but it was really impressive to see how much work was put into the comfort and productiveness of the engineers at the FDA as well as hearing about some of the work that was being done there. Soon I plan to go on tours of other places such as NIH, but for now I would be completely content with receiving a job at the FDA this summer.