Holistic support for people and projects

Co-winner of the Farwell Award, Sandy Walbrek has spent 22 years paving the way for others to succeed
Farwell Award co-recipient Sandy Walbrek
Farwell Award co-recipient Sandy Walbrek was praised by her colleagues for her tireless "everything-is-possible approach" to building community and creating a cohesive core of administrative support for PHS faculty. Photo by Dean Forbes

The Hutchinson Center attracts faculty from all corners of the globe. Making the transition to a new country, new culture and new language can be a daunting challenge. But one person is working overtime to make everyone feel at home.

Sandy Walbrek started at the Center 22 years ago and has spent the majority of her time in administration for the Biostatistics and Biomathematics Program, where faculty and research projects are as diverse as it gets. "It's a little United Nations," Walbrek said, after reciting a long list of countries represented by faculty in the program. Research projects also vary widely; in fact, one of the few things tying it all together is the staff, led by Walbrek, the program administrator.

In Farwell's footsteps

The ability to unite such a variety of people and interests recently earned Walbrek the Margaret T. Farwell Award. The Public Health Sciences Division faculty members present the award to recognize a spirit of excellence and exceptional contributions. "Sandy does an outstanding job with the myriad of administrative tasks in running a scientific program within PHS, but she does much more than that. She takes a very holistic view in looking out for faculty and staff, anticipating problems and suggesting solutions," said Dr. Steven Self, who was responsible for Walbrek's nomination. Walbrek shares the 2006 award with Bernadine Lund.

The award was particularly touching because Walbrek worked with Farwell every day for the last two years before Farwell's retirement. Walbrek describes her former colleague as incredibly professional and hard working. "You never had a sense of precisely all the details she was taking care of; they just were handled. She didn't want to announce them or get credit for them. She just did everything that was needed without issue," Walbrek said. "So it means a lot because I knew her. And, I'm touched by the really kind things everyone said."

Walbrek's nomination came with a stack of glowing letters from faculty. "Our group is really good about saying thank you and being appreciative, but they just took it to a different level when they nominated me for this," Walbrek said.

"In this position, she has created a cohesive administrative core to ensure that all faculty have access to administrative support," wrote Self in his nomination letter, which was a sentiment echoed by many other faculty.

The administrative staff members have been intentionally trying to build a greater sense of community and collaboration among faculty, and seeing those efforts recognized was encouraging. "It felt really good that I was on the mark, that I'd been investing my time wisely, and that it's helped," Walbrek said.

Some nomination letters described Walbrek as having an "everything-is-possible attitude" and always "willing to go the extra 10 miles." According to faculty, Walbrek's daily activities go above and beyond what is in her official job description. In addition to office work, she makes a point of getting to know people on a personal level. Part of that includes coordinating office parties and potlucks, but it also means taking a sincere interest in the faculty and their research. At least once a month, she meets with each of the faculty to check in and make sure all needs are being met. "Sometimes they don't realize what they need until they sit down and have a chat and talk with you about how things are going," Walbrek said.

"My work is all about helping faculty focus on the science. Whatever I can do to help them be more effective, the better," Walbrek said. She regularly monitors budgets and staffing levels, and keeps abreast of what's happening in other departments at the Center and at the National Institutes for Health to inform other members of the latest developments.

Among the roles she's taken on over the years, Walbrek coordinates visits for scientists from all over the world and helps new faculty members adjust and identify mentoring committees. But Walbrek is nonchalant about her multiple duties. "The longer you're here, the more you know. And the more you know, the more helpful you can be," she said.

Making a world of difference

Since she started at the Center more than two decades ago, Walbrek's career has come full circle. She started as an administrative assistant for biostatistics and then moved to the Hanford study, where she stayed for 10 years. After that, she worked as an administrator in the labs, and a year and a half later, returned to the international diversity of the Biostatistics and Biomathematics Program. "It was like coming home. I feel like I kind of grew up here," she said.

She's been back, making a world of difference, for nearly six years and said the various people are what make her job special. "There isn't any place else I'd want to work at the Center. I just absolutely love these people to pieces. I've worked around the Center, but I feel like I make more of a contribution where I am. And I'll be here as long as I can help." Her help and caring nature will likely continue to reach beyond office walls as she extends her support to faculty and friends from around the world.

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