'Why not?': Nursing alumna's journey takes her to Fortune 500 company

Julia Larsen spent 10 years working in hospitals before she pivoted to a non-clinical role.

By: Katie Coburn

When Julia (Collins) Larsen graduated from UC College of Nursing in 1980, she never imagined 40 years later she would be working in a non-clinical role at a Fortune 500 company in California.

"When I started my career, I would have never guessed that I would do anything besides work in a hospital," says Larsen, BSN, who currently serves as the director of clinical development at Quest Diagnostics, the world's leading provider of diagnostic testing, information and services. “There are certain aspects of [working in a hospital] that I miss, but I'm still contributing to patient care in a different way."

Larsen's journey to Quest Diagnostics was anything but conventional. For the first 10 years of her career, she did work in a hospital—two hospitals, in fact. After five years working at the bedside and contributing to research projects at Cincinnati Children's, a friend encouraged Larsen to take a job as a clinical research nurse at University of Cincinnati Medical Center (UCMC). She quickly became the cardiac transplant coordinator for UCMC's first-ever heart transplant program, which led to a job offer with a California-based company to oversee clinical research for a cardiac-assist medical device. Larsen said, "Why not?"

"That's been kind of the theme throughout my career: 'Sure, why not?'" she says. "My plan was to move to California for a couple of years and, if I liked it, great. If I didn’t, I'd move back. That was 1990 and I've been out here ever since."

It's really the confidence that you build throughout your education that allows you to feel competent and confident to say yes to some of these opportunities that were not typical career paths.

Julia Larsen, '80

This opportunity afforded Larsen the ability to travel around the world, as she was responsible for monitoring clinical research at 25 study sites throughout the U.S. and
Europe. A few years later, she transitioned to working as a clinical affairs manager for different companies in California, helping prove the clinical value of various medical devices and training physicians on how to use such devices. In 1999, Larsen made her biggest career transition by joining Berkeley Heartlab, a laboratory that conducted blood testing for heart disease in Alameda, California, where she resides with her husband today.

"Moving to a laboratory-based product was really getting to the cause of heart disease, which made a lot of sense to me," Larsen says. "This company developed novel blood tests to look for other biomarkers, besides high cholesterol, that are putting people at high risk of heart disease."

Larsen worked at Berkeley Heartlab for 14 years, climbing the ranks from director of special program marketing to director of corporate training. The company was acquired by Celera Corp. in 2007, then by Quest Diagnostics in 2011. At Quest Diagnostics, Larsen has returned to her research roots, helping the company collaborate with academic centers across the country to develop biomarkers for common diseases. As director of clinical development, she oversees all cardiovascular and endocrinology-related studies in the U.S., collaborating with medical directors, data managers, physicians and others to publish results in peer-reviewed journals. At any given time, Larsen is managing 30 to 35 studies related to heart disease and diabetes and, occasionally, she is recruited to help with urgent matters like COVID-19-related projects.

"It’s very, very busy," Larsen says. "It's very interesting, though, because there's so much variety and so many different aspects that people are really trying to understand and make a difference in. It keeps me on my toes, especially endocrinology, because I'm not as familiar with the specialty."

How does she manage it all? Larsen credits her undergraduate education at the college. On top of receiving a well-rounded education, she says the collaboration with other health care professionals during clinical rotations made her feel like a valued member of the patient care team and gave her the confidence to take on roles that she had not been exposed to previously.

"It's really the confidence that you build throughout your education that allows you to feel competent and confident to say ‘yes’ to some of these opportunities that were not typical career paths,” Larsen says. "I’m just an average person. I could easily fail at something, but I wasn’t afraid to fail. I felt like, if I didn’t try, I wouldn’t learn about this or that."

Larsen also credits her multitasking skills and superior attention to detail to her experience managing cases at Cincinnati Children's and UCMC. “People ask, ‘Do you still use your nursing skills?’ And I say, 'Well, not my bedside nursing skills. I don’t put IVs in every day, but the skills you learn about organization, communication and prioritization are all still very much part of my day-to-day work.'"

When she is not working from her boat "office" on the San Francisco Bay, Larsen enjoys spending time with her husband, daughter and 6-year-old twin grandsons. As vice president of Alameda’s Meals on Wheels chapter, she and her husband also deliver meals on the weekends to those in need. Although she never thought she would be where she is today professionally, Larsen is certain she is where she is meant to be.

"There are a lot of different opportunities for nurses that they might not even be aware of if they decide they want to try something different from bedside nursing."

Featured image at top: Julia Larsen and husband, Rob. Photo/Submitted