Hutch News Stories

Science through the back door

Kristi Stiffler's 'journey of discovery' has taken her across the world and back again into a career on the administrative side of science
Kristi Stiffler
The journeys of Kristi Stiffler, project coordinator, have led her back the scientific field where her interests began. Photo by Todd McNaught

Kristi Stiffler admits that she was the "perfect candidate" for a doctorate when she earned her undergraduate degree in molecular and cellular biology in 1996. But plans have a way of changing. Instead, Stiffler embarked on a six-year personal journey of discovery that has taken her to some interesting ports of call, the latest of which is the Autologous Transplant program in the Clinical Research Division.

Stiffler has been a project coordinator for Drs. Leona Holmberg, William Bensinger and Michael Bender since August 2002. In the broad scope, her job is to manage the clinical-trials studies for the researchers, from budgeting and document preparation for the institutional-review board to negotiating payment from the trials' sponsors.

"It's fun," said Stiffler. "Dr. Bensinger has been great about giving me projects that are challenging and he gives me a lot of leeway in what I can do so that I can take on responsibility and be involved in a lot of aspects of the studies." That includes going to meetings, often out of state, to get briefed by the pharmaceutical company sponsors on the science and how the study will be conducted. "It makes the study more interesting because I have a view of what's going on and what they are trying to accomplish."

Outstanding abilities

In general, Stiffler says of working at Fred Hutchinson, "I like being around people who are very intelligent but who are also working on things they honestly believe in. Here they have the freedom to do research that they may not get to do elsewhere."

The center may have lost a potential scientist when Stiffler chose not to pursue her doctorate, but it gained talented administrative Jill-of-all-trades, according to Holmberg. "Kristi is outstanding in her ability to carry out her duties of her position," she said. "She is exceptional in her managing of budgets. She has successfully negotiated, developed and overseen industry-sponsored studies. As a result of her ability to handle these budgets, she has become a representative of the clinical division to develop a center-wide process to invoice commercial-research agreements. Kristi makes a significant contribution to the work that she undertakes and is a very valuable player."

Autologous Transplant Program

The Autologous Transplant program oversees the delivery of new clinical trials as well as the care that trial participants receive. Patients receive transplants of their own stem cells as a therapy for fighting blood cancers, predominately multiple myeloma and lymphomas. Trials include new ways to collect stem cells, adding new agents to the standard transplant to improve efficacy and studying new maintenance therapies, post transplant, to reduce relapse rates, according to Holmberg.

Stiffler's education and experience prior to coming to the center prepared her well. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Arizona. "The science background of course helps because a lot of times I'm looking through the protocol before even talking to Dr. Bensinger about the study," she said. "I'm not scared by the language in the protocol even if I'm not familiar with all of the terms."

Upon graduation, Stiffler spent the summer and fall at the university working on a National Science Foundation grant to develop a middle-school science curriculum as she considered science education as potential career.

Road to Fred Hutchinson

Then she spent seven months traveling solo in India and Nepal. That experience sparked a keen interest in other cultures that continues today. Stiffler returned to her hometown of Edmonds in summer 1997 with a load of craft items that she then sold. In her dealings she found the Pioneer Square gallery of Clarke & Clarke. Co-owner Jim Clarke is a cultural anthropologist. Fascinated, Stiffler began an internship that blossomed into a full-time job. During her internship she worked as a science educator at the Pacific Science Center and as a volunteer for a University of Washington outreach program for elementary-school students.

Stiffler stayed on with the gallery until she joined the center in 2002, when the Clarke's business plans led Stiffler to consider a return to science. She had a friend who worked at the Fred Hutchinson, liked that the center is a non-profit organization dedicated to a wide variety of research and applied for the job as project coordinator.

"I enjoy this type of work because I like math and logic and I like being around science," she said. "I appreciate what people here are doing in that they are helping those who are very sick."

And wherever the future may lead, this is an area in which she plans to stay involved. Stiffler learned recently that she has been accepted to the Master's in Public Health program at the University of Washington. She will continue to work here while going to school. The journey continues.

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