laboratory animal technician working in isolator
Research Models
Mary Parker

Turning Negatives Into Positives

Mercedes Silia’s optimism spreads joy in her lab

In the fight against COVID-19 and every other disease plaguing humanity, we tend to focus on the celebrity scientists. Their names are on the papers, their research is praised, and they are given the burden of expectations from people desperate for a cure. However, it is laboratory animal technicians like Mercedes Silia, Trainer and Campus Administrator for Gnotobiotics at Charles River’s Wilmington site, who ensure that research can even get started. They not only care for the mice and rats that are crucial for medical research, but they also make sure that those animals are perfect. Any deviation or contamination from their department could have trickle down effects that corrupt data later, and subsequently Mercedes and her team take safety and cleanliness very seriously.

Mercedes is the poster woman for “learning on the job.” Everything she has learned about being a laboratory animal technician and caring for and shipping mice and rats for clients has come from her work training. With her enthusiasm for her work and her happy personality, she is the perfect fit for her current role training new hires.

“It was my first time working with laboratory animals when I came here to gnotobiotics, but I'm very grateful that I made the decision to come to work here,” she said. “Every day when I come into work, I'm really happy and motivated because all of us as a team are helping sick people out there. It makes me feel happy that I'm part of that and that I'm helping.”

Mercedes has worked for Charles River in the same department for 16 years this September. She knows intimately every facet of not only her job, but the ins and outs of the facility itself. For a new hire, she is certainly a positive and reassuring presence during their initial training. For seasoned employees working on retraining or new standard operating procedures (SOP), it is valuable to have such a dedicated teacher.

“If you're motivated, the other person is going to be motivated,” she said. “We try to pass that though the training. I guess we just need to be able to do our best every day.”

lab animal tech Mercedes with familyMercedes grew up in Lawrence, MA after moving here with her family from the Dominican Republic. She attended middle and high school in Lawrence before attending Massachusetts Community College for a while. She moved to and worked in New York for a few years, but always planned to move back to the Lawrence area to be closer to family. When she got the offer from Charles River, she was excited to start the next phase of her career.

“I moved here on a Saturday, and I started working here on the following Monday,” she said. “If they let me retire from here, I'm going to retire from here.”

As far as sanitization in the lab goes, Mercedes’ team is simply continuing their usual procedures. The only changes that have been made are for the benefit of employees – masks are required everywhere, employees are not allowed to sit in kitchens or cafeterias together, and there are reminders about hand washing and sanitization everywhere. Mercedes’ trainings have also been reduced from twelve people at a time to only three, and most meetings have moved to virtual platforms.

“The department has given us all the information we need and provided us all the PPE required,” she said. “We are used to sanitizing, because we have to sanitize all the time on the floor. We are used to washing our hands all the time because that's one of the procedures that we follow.”

Outside of work, she is the proud mother of two. Her daughter will be starting private high school this fall on a full ride scholarship where she is looking forward to her classes in robotics. Her son will be online only for his sophomore classes at the University of Connecticut, where he is studying engineering and computer science. He dodged a problem when he had the foresight to apply for academic rather than athletic scholarships, so his funding will not be affected by going online only.

“Things happen for a reason, and now I'm really happy,” she said. “I always talk to my family about my job because my job is very important to me. It's very important that they know what I do because we are saving lives. We've seen the news and everything that is happening, but I feel like when something like that is happening, you want to be able to turn it into a positive. Anything negative, change into positive.”