The Lure of the Lab: Larry Andrade's unconventional route to R&D leadership

The rise in opiate abuse and the emergence of synthetic drugs with street names like “n-bomb,” “bath salts,” and spice” have increased the demand foraccurate drug testing and monitoring services. Whether working to make drug compliance tests more reliable or developing methods to detect the presence of new illegal drugs in blood or urine, scientists must possess both a deep understanding of biochemistry and demonstrated expertise in the use of sophisticated analytical technologies, such as liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry.

At Dominion Diagnostics of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, one of the nation’s top providers of clinical drug monitoring solutions, that responsibility is entrusted to the company’s Director of Research and Development—and University College 1994 graduate— Lawrence J. Andrade.

A blue-collar boyhood
Lawrence Andrade’s career journey was not a typical one. He grew up in a working-class family in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, without college-educated role models.

“My father was in the U.S. Navy when we were younger, then he was a machinist, a foundry worker, and a meat cutter, and my mom worked as a housekeeper,” Andrade remembered. “Neither one finished high school, but they both worked hard and did whatever they could.”

While Andrade enjoyed science classes and excelled in school, college remained a vague and remote aspiration. However, while attending high school, he began volunteering at nearby Memorial Hospital.

“That was really powerful for me because I got exposed to so many careers in so many healthcare areas, and that’s when I just started to work toward the laboratory,” he noted.

Going it alone
By age 18, he had moved out of his parents’ house and enrolled in Community College of Rhode Island while working a succession of full-time jobs in the evening. Without scholarships or family support, Lawrence Andrade spent five years earning an Associate in Applied Science degree in Chemical Technology.

The effort paid off when DuPont offered Andrade an entry-level position as a chemist in the Boston area. Andrade enjoyed the work, but soon discovered that his career would be limited without a Bachelor’s degree. DuPont provided a generous educational reimbursement program, but that also meant that Andrade would have to continue working full-time while earning his degree. When he researched programs, he discovered that only one university in the Boston area offered part-time programs in life sciences: Northeastern. He applied and was accepted.

Faculty and students: something in common
“My instrumental analysis instructor and genetics professor were very helpful and inspiring,” recalled Andrade. “Most of the teaching staff worked full-time in the field, so we had that in common, which I don’t think I would have had in day school.”

Five years later, at age 30, Lawrence Andrade graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical and Biological Technology. Before long, his Northeastern biology education landed him a research position at ARIAD Pharmaceuticals, purifying and characterizing recombinant target proteins to develop anti-cancer drugs. His name began appearing on articles in scholarly journals, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.

“Northeastern enabled me to become a biologist,” said Andrade. “The education in biology and biochemistry was current, and I found that I was able to compete with seasoned people who went to Ivy League schools.”

Working at the forefront of science
At Dominion Diagnostics, Andrade supervises a staff of four working to develop more accurate means of confirming the presence of drugs, both therapeutic and illicit, and reducing the number of false positives.

“We develop and validate the methods in the research lab, then transfer them to the instruments in the production laboratory. The assays are then run by our Medical Technologists,” noted Andrade. “It’s hard to stay ahead of the street drugs, but as soon as they’re scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Agency, we pursue them to add to our menu.”

It is important and rewarding work.

“Our patients depend on our results, which can directly affect people’s lives,” said Andrade. “It’s not something we take lightly.”

Your Choice is Clear

An excerpt from Lawrence Andrade’s speech to the Northeastern University College of Professional Studies annual scholarship reception in August of 2015:

"I had to continue to work full-time, and there really weren’t any schools that had part-time programs, especially in the life sciences. Then I discovered Northeastern University’s University College.

"I made an appointment with Katherine Ziegler, a counselor at the school. Together, we went over my goals and needs, she reviewed my transcripts, and we tried to figure out which programs would be a good fit.

"After we laid everything out, she extrapolated a possible graduation date: the summer of 1994. I said to her, ‘But Mrs. Ziegler, I’m going to be 30 years old when I finish my Bachelor’s degree’— to which she replied, ‘Well then, Lawrence, you can be a 30-year-old with a degree or a 30-year-old without a Bachelor’s degree. Your choice is clear.’

"That crisp and concise logic hit a nerve. It made sense. It made me think. And, it proved to have a lasting impact. I carry that lesson with me to this day, and it colors how I approach everything I do."