Turn Up the AMP!
Sitting Down With… Laura Tafe, President of the Association for Molecular Pathology
| 9 min read | Interview
The Association for Molecular Pathology (AMP) is an international medical and professional society focused on the research and application of molecular biology, genetics, and genomics in the lab. As of writing, AMP represents roughly 2,900 members, spanning titles from physicians to medical laboratory scientists, working everywhere from government to hospital-based clinical laboratories.
We caught up with AMP President Laura Tafe to learn more about her career – and AMP ambitions under her watchful eye.
What’s your current role?
I work as an anatomic and molecular pathologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, where I am an associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine. My interests are in GYN and lung pathology and solid tumor molecular diagnostics. I am part of our Laboratory for Clinical Genomics and Advanced Technologies (CGAT) and I direct the institutional Molecular Tumor Board. Beyond my day job, I am a mother, a partner, and an artist.
How did you get involved in AMP?
I attended my first AMP annual meeting as a resident to present a poster on a project. The molecular director at my residency program, who is now a colleague of mine, has always been very encouraging of resident projects. It was actually a conversation at that meeting with an AMP member from another institution that solidified my decision to pursue fellowship training in molecular genetic pathology. After fellowship training, as junior faculty, I became a member of AMP’s Training and Education Committee and ended up being Chair of that committee. The rest is history. I consider AMP my primary professional society, and I have benefited greatly by being involved with AMP – both personally and professionally. It’s a real honor to serve in this role as AMP President.
What does the president of AMP do day to day?
Given that AMP is a relatively young society that represents a very fast-moving field, the role of president keeps me busy. The day-to-day work of the AMP president is never boring. For example, this past week I reviewed and weighed in on a couple of position statements in support of AMP’s public policies, had a call to discuss a speaking opportunity as part of a panel discussion, participated in the Economic Affairs Committee monthly meeting, spoke with AMP’s Executive Director to discuss agenda for upcoming meetings, chaired the Executive Committee meeting, and reviewed CVs for candidates seeking appointment to volunteer positions. I am fortunate that my institution and my family are supportive of my role with AMP. I am continually impressed by the fact AMP’s Board, committees, and working groups are made up entirely of volunteers. We are all working together on top of our daily professional commitments to advance AMP’s mission.
Have there been any standout moments of your tenure so far?
A former AMP president once told me: “You never know what will come along during your Presidency year.” So, I’m open to the unexpected. AMP was very pleased to see the VALID Act was not included in the omnibus spending package at the end of 2022. This decision helped protect access to the more than 160,000 laboratory developed testing procedures (LDPs), which benefit patients each and every day. We remain committed to working with members of Congress and other key stakeholders to modernize the current CLIA regulatory system for LDPs in a manner that enhances transparency and fosters the rapid innovation and promise of new diagnostic technologies – without unduly hindering our members’ ability to practice laboratory medicine. We will also continue to advocate for a clearer and more predictable regulatory pathway within the FDA for in vitro diagnostic manufacturers.
AMP is also an international organization with affiliates in 57 countries, so I am looking forward to attending AMP Europe in June in Milan, Italy. This will be our first international meeting since the pandemic began. I continue to reach out to leaders in other professional societies who share a mutual interest in molecular diagnostics. These meetings are leading to very fruitful conversations that I hope will continue to build AMP’s relationships and collaborations with other organizations.
What is your goal as president of AMP?
It is very important to me to help continue AMP’s work in raising the visibility of pathology, especially the work being done by molecular professionals. AMP is working hard to ensure that molecular professionals are recognized for the integral part they play in providing timely, accurate, and appropriate care to patients. We saw a temporary increase in public recognition during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that is subsiding. The work our members do is critical to the practice of medicine and our ability to offer the best patient care. I am also pleased to be working with AMP on the continuation of our efforts to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion into everything we do as an organization. In the past year, AMP has worked with a consultant to significantly revamp our approach. One example of an initiative we are working on is the creation of standardized evaluation rubrics for the assessment of applicants for volunteer positions and awards. Standardizing how we evaluate candidates for opportunities across the organization is a crucial component of our DEI roadmap. Equity in accessibility to molecular diagnostic testing is also a high priority. During my term as President, I will help move these efforts forward.
Where is molecular pathology heading? Do you feel any topics go under-represented?
The future for molecular pathology is both bright and expansive. We have seen an explosion of growth in the oncology space with the introduction and adoption of molecular biomarker-targeted therapies. Increasingly, solid tumor and lymphoid malignancy diagnosis and characterization is based upon molecular attributes, which also can provide prognostic and predictive information. The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled infectious disease testing forward and brought advanced molecular diagnostic capabilities to a whole new generation of laboratories and laboratory professionals.
In inherited conditions, the increased availability and affordability of whole genome and whole exome sequencing could forever change how we go about diagnosing patients, potentially eliminating the diagnostic odyssey that many patients seeking answers have had to take. In bioinformatics, the focus on how to best manage, use, and leverage the enormous amounts of data generated by molecular testing is proving to be a frontier that once explored could propel discovery at a rate we haven’t yet seen in our lifetime. AI and machine learning and applications to molecular diagnostics will be important tools that need to be developed with thorough design, testing and validation by experts in molecular pathology.
I think that some of the topics that go under-represented are those that often come with the incredible growth of our field. How does evidence-based genomic medicine keep pace with discovery while providing accessible and equitable care for all patients? How do we best leverage the existing oversight mechanisms to address a field that is changing so quickly? How do we provide coverage and reimbursement for the professional work required to interpret and report the result of a complex molecular diagnostic test? What will happen if gene patenting – which AMP, of course, feels is an issue that was already adjudicated and decided years ago – resurfaces for discussion?
How did you get started as an artist? And what connections do you see between art and pathology?
Thank you for asking about this. I’m an analog collage artist. Art has always been a part of my life, although I set it aside for a while during training and my early career. In 2019, right before the pandemic started, I finally acknowledged to myself how much I’d been missing creating art. So, I made it a priority to carve out space in my life; other priorities have shifted and I’ve liked this change. I share my art to remind others that we are multifaceted people. It’s important – especially for those who work in healthcare – that we honor ourselves as a whole person and prioritize our lives outside of work. Pathology (especially anatomic pathology) is very aesthetic and visual, which I think was part of the appeal for me. It involves putting pieces together to make the diagnosis, making sure nothing’s missing. You need to be comprehensive and pay attention to the details to get the overall picture. Pathology is an art in itself.
Given increasing levels of burnout, how do you maintain good mental health?
I have experienced depression and what is referred to as burnout. I think burnout is about individuals not being supported by the systems and organizations they work in; it has nothing to do with the resilience of an individual. We don’t talk enough about these issues in medicine, especially mental health and its impact on our entire lives. I’ve sought professional help, which has greatly benefited me. Seeking help for mental illness continues to be stigmatized in the medical culture. I’ve started to talk more about my experiences with this, in the hopes that it encourages others to do the same. We lose too many individuals to suicide and the rates are particular staggering in high-achieving fields, such as medicine. For me, prioritizing life outside of work helps. I make time for family and friends, space for my art, other things I enjoy, and “me” time. These make me a healthier person, which in turn helps me be better when I am at work. Work needs to be viewed as one piece of our lives, not the constant center.
If you traveled back in time, what would you say to yourself 20 years ago?
Probably nothing except, “I love you, I’m proud of you.” I’m where I need to be now and that’s because of the journey my life has taken. I’ve learned from all of it. By now I trust the process.
Laura Tafe has previously published analog collages in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Lifelines, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth Literary and Art Journal, and most recently the Poetry X Collage journal, and had a collage selected as Cover Art, Honorable Mention, for the Academic Medicine journal. Her work is included in the forthcoming Artists Remaking Medicine, from Procedure Press. She has exhibited her collages in several group shows at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, NH. You can find her on Twitter at @LJTafeMD.