For the past four years, Mariam Alloul has managed a laboratory at the Leiden University Medical Center which focuses on leukemia and other hematological diseases. She takes pride in solving problems and making sure the lab runs efficiently and maintains its accreditation, but there are times when managing the lab’s technicians brings headaches. Mariam, 37, lives with her husband Fahd Ramdhani and three children in Valkenburg. [A profile of Fahd Ramdhani also appears at]  

I manage the people that work in the lab … We have 16 technicians that work in three different sections … My job is the planning of the technicians, who works where and when, and also the quality assurance. So I’m responsible that every process is being rightfully [done] … Everything has to be signed and checked, and also we have to audit our processes. And everything that comes out of that audit we have to review and make sure we have the proper solution for that.”

Mariam’s training for this job “was mainly management courses … but also quality assurance courses. We work under ISO-15189 [a quality and competence standard for medical laboratories]. We needed to do courses in order to understand what the restrictions are and how to deal with the processes at work.”

Prior to this job, Mariam was enrolled in PhD research focused on dermatology, also at Leiden University Medical Center. “I did research on 3-dimensional skin models … Actually, I’m still finishing up my PhD, the writing part. I’ve done four and a half years [focused on] toxicology screenings, 3D skin models in order to develop an alternative, non-animal testing model.”

“So, yes, it was a different department [from her current work at the hematological laboratory]. But I wanted to do some experience in management … and with a quality system. That was also a new part for me.”

Staff meetings are a key management tool: “We have weekly work discussions with each of the teams, and we have also monthly discussions with the complete team. So we discuss daily problems they encounter and how to try to solve them, or at least talk about them and try to think about a solution. We also have a system where we put in anything that causes difficulties or problems in the laboratory. Most of them are actually doctors that have problems (laughs) with putting in a request, or the wrong request for a specific question for a diagnosis or a specific test, and it’s not correctly entered in the system and problems like that.”

“When problems arise, you have to solve them. And you don’t know when a problem will arise … we are a lab that’s open from 9 to 5 … there are fixed meetings, but we also have meetings when people have problems with each other or the group and that could happen anytime.”

Occasionally works from home: “I’m there between 9:00 and 5:30 … but there could be days when I work from home.” This request is not always approved. “Not always … Sometimes I really need to do stuff. Because if I’m at the office I keep the door open, and if the door is open that means you’re open for questions. That means there’s not much time to really get your stuff done. Sometimes it’s necessary to do that in a separate place.” (laughs)

“If my child is not feeling well, yes, there is this flexibility. Although this home working is not a structural thing that is given to me … It actually depends on your job and your supervisor. If your supervisor gives you the flexibility, it is possible.”

English is spoken in some LUMC departments, but this depends largely on how many international staff members there are. “This laboratory hardly uses any English … It depends also on the colleagues. In the molecular biology department, it was a very international department. So then also with your colleagues you would have to speak English, and the work discussions are in English. The second department, dermatology, was less international, so it was more Dutch. And at this point there’s hardly any English. (laughs) So it basically depends on which department you work how much English you would have to use for the job.” Nearly all of the 16 hematological lab technicians are Dutch. “We have one man and 15 women.” (laughs)

As a lab manager, Mariam finds most satisfaction in “keeping everything going and solving the problems. If the problems occur and I’m able to solve them and we’re able to move on, that’s what I like about it. And we also have a yearly audit from the board of accreditation … it’s a tense moment … when we get that done and the problems that arise from the accreditation are solved it gives me a good feeling, a sense of satisfaction … Of course, it’s a team effort. It’s not a thing that I do by myself. But I’m responsible for coordinating it and thinking of solutions for the problems that arise.”

“The only things that people look at, of course, are ‘are you accredited’ and ‘how fast do you deliver your diagnosis.’ (laughs) I think that’s the only thing that’s important for the outside world, for the doctors and for the patients.”

Paperwork and administration is one of the job’s major challenges: “There are two main challenges. One of them is administration. Quality system means a lot of administration. Almost 70 percent is administering everything that you have done, and checking and signing … it’s not the nicest part of the work.”

“And another challenge is, of course, the people management. (laughs) How to keep the balance of these 16 people that are working together. And sometimes it leads to some problems.”

“You want to give them flexibility, but sometimes you also have to bring in rules in order to create the balance. And sometimes there are people that want to check what is the flexibility and make it difficult for the other ones. And I find that’s challenging.” One example is with the starting time. “The lab starts at 8:30. And before I came there it was really strict, you have to start at 8:30. But there are some people who want to bring their kids to school first. So we brought in the flexibility, which I think is good … that shouldn’t be a problem. But there are some people who then take advantage of it and think ‘well, I can come at 8:45 when I like it.’ It’s difficult then to give the flexibility. There are some people who take advantage of the flexibility.”

“Sometimes I enjoy [management] and sometimes I don’t. I’m very flexible, so I give flexibility. But I expect that people won’t take advantage of it. If they do, then I find it difficult … I don’t want to set up strict rules, I don’t like strict rules. It creates a tense environment in my opinion. I’d rather give the flexibility, but then it’s a delicate line. You assume that people don’t take advantage of it. But then when they do you need to restrict the flexibility. I don’t want to do that, but sometimes you have to.”

Mariam is of Moroccan heritage, but she was born in the Netherlands and considers herself Dutch. “I can only think in Dutch to be honest. My mother and father speak Arabic to me, but for me it’s a second language, it’s not my first language, for some reason. (laughs) But other people would think otherwise I guess … because they look at your appearance and not as much at what you think or how you think.”

“Most people that are open and get to know you are quite different in how they speak with me … But not everybody is as open as the others. So you always get some people that are not open or don’t want to be open to diversity and different cultures.”

Mariam thinks current events have contributed to cultural tensions: “It’s changed also because of the political stuff that is going on in the world … So it’s a pity. It has influence on people what they hear in the news, what is happening in the world. It influences people in different ways I guess. But it definitely has changed in a negative way toward Arabs and Muslims in general. I can definitely feel that.”

Finding a balance between work and life: “That’s sort of my problem. I tend to sometimes put my job in the first place and my family in second place. Because I have a greater feeling of responsibility … sometimes even on my day off I do things for my job instead of other things. Sometimes I find it difficult to find a balance in my head to put it in second place as it should be.”

Future plans: “I’ve thought a lot about my next step [after she completes her PhD]. I think I prefer something … that has a more scientific” aspect than what she does now. She would like to “really go into the data and find out how to solve it, a more scientific function … Normally I’d think of a post-doc. But to do that at this point is very difficult. It would not offer you a fixed job first of all. And second you would have to write a lot of grants to get money. And the money for grants is much less available now.”

Mariam feels that scientific research is often corrupted by commercial pressures: “I would have to go where the money is … there’s a lot of competition and a lot of stress. And you’re forced to make data. And what it leads to is people are getting so nervous. You have to publish … And if you don’t have the publications then you’re not good enough … So the environment is getting more and more competitive, and I don’t like the environment anymore.”

“I like to research, but not in that kind of environment. If it’s not good data, then it’s not good data … But I guess when the environment is forcing people to publish, then we will publish bad data. I don’t think that’s a good thing. And for that reason, I don’t want to stay in that kind of research. I would like to do research but maybe more in a translational … something that you would use more directly. So maybe in a pre-phase of diagnostics.”

Her next job “could also be in LUMC or it could be in the BioScience Park. Because then you would have to develop things that are reproducible in order to use as a diagnostic test or whatever. Something that is solid. But what it is exactly I’m not quite sure … I have a molecular biology background, so I could go anywhere.”