New PHS administrator supports 'a life of science'

Rosemarie Keenan brings a wealth of experience, knowledge, people skills to PHS leadership position
Rosemarie Keenan standing on indoor staircase
Rosemarie Keenan's diverse knowledge has taken her from temp work to PHS Division administrator, winning a spot on TV's "Jeopardy" along the way. Photo by Dean Forbes

To beat out hundreds of would-be opponents on the TV game show "Jeopardy" last spring, Rosemarie Keenan had to rely on careful listening, decisive action and diverse knowledge. She won a spot on the show, and while she didn't emerge as the game champion, those winning qualities serve her well at the administrative helm of the Public Health Sciences Division.

Keenan became the PHS administrator last December, filling the position left by Lawrie Robertson, who departed after 19 years in the role. Since her arrival at the Center in 1991, Keenan has held jobs of increasing responsibility, including working under Robertson in PHS leadership as the administrative manager for the past five years.

She came to Seattle after earning a law degree from New York University and working for an advertising agency in Florida. While she loved school and found studying law fascinating, legal-career options didn't hold much interest. Keenan began temping following her move to the Northwest. Dr. Dick Chapman's pain-research program in the Clinical Research Division was her first assignment. Though she had never before considered a career supporting science, Keenan was soon hooked.

"For someone without a science background, it was a great introduction to the Center's mission," she said. "The program's emphasis on psychology made it a good entry point for me to learn about cancer research. I was contributing to work that was clearly helping people, and that really appealed to me. Plus, it was like my law school experience because I was surrounded by very smart people who were passionate about what they were doing. It was another opportunity to learn a lot."

Early growth with WHI

Keenan quickly mastered the basics of research administration, including grant applications, day-to-day management and working with human subjects. She was hired as a permanent employee, but the program lost its funding.

The Women's Health Initiative (WHI) Coordinating Center was growing in PHS, so Keenan switched divisions and spent a number of years in a variety of positions for the clinical trial, including coordinating study documentation and managing the administrative group and study finances.

"Working in WHI, I learned the nuts and bolts of fiscal administration, with an emphasis on contracts as opposed to grants. Having familiarity with both types of funding has been a big help in working with PHS administrators," she said.

Five years ago, Keenan became the division's administrative manager, rounding out her skill set to include faculty issues, Center budgets and regulatory issues like health-privacy practices.

Gail DeVun, special-projects administrator for PHS, said Keenan was a natural fit when the division administrator slot opened last year.

"Rosemarie has been fully involved in all aspects of the role for some time, having been a very strong and able partner in PHS administrative activities," DeVun said. "She is a thoughtful, accomplished problem-solver, and she's able to work effectively with both the big picture and the details."

Division Director Dr. John Potter is equally pleased to work side-by-side with Keenan. "As Lawrie's assistant, Rosemarie was valuable. As PHS administrator, she is invaluable," he said. "One of the best things about Rosemarie is her relative unflappability. Even when there is chaos all around — like during budget time — she is swift, decisive and good at finding one more option. Rosemarie also has a great deal of institutional memory and her knowledge of people, procedures and precedents is remarkably helpful."

Though Keenan said she is comfortable in the basics of her new role, there are plenty of challenges ahead. "I can use all that I've picked up so far, but there's still a lot for me to learn — that's a good feeling," she said. "I genuinely enjoy listening to people and trying to find answers for their needs."

Goals and long-term role

Keenan is learning to balance long-term planning and budget work with front-burner issues, a daily deluge of e-mail, plenty of meetings and the desire to walk around the Arnold Building to stay connected with projects and people.

Her short-term goals include efficient integration of the division's information-technology structures and working on the PHS section of the Center's Intranet to convey information more easily to the PHS project administrators.

Through the myriad of concerns and tasks in front of her, Keenan doesn't lose sight of her purpose. "As an administrator, my role is to support the science, to create an environment where the scientists can do their best work," she said. "That can be anything from escorting a visitor to a conference room to helping new faculty members become familiar with Center policies. Whatever I'm doing, I feel like I'm making a contribution."

And just like competing on "Jeopardy," a wide range of knowledge and skills is key to her new job.

"I like the idea of arriving at work and having each day bring something totally new," she said. "The variety is my favorite part — that, and the people here. I feel lucky that the people I work with are smart and capable, and they're about getting the work done."

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