The night before a well-deserved vacation, Berta Nicol-Blades wasn't worried about packing or last-minute travel details. The sun had long since set, and she was hunched over a computer screen, clacking away through the night to meet a deadline that had just come up at work. After an all-nighter, the project was finished, and the ardently devoted — albeit tired — Center staff member took her vacation.
So it came as no surprise to those who work with her that Nicol-Blades won the 2007 Margaret T. Farwell Award. The award is presented every year to a non-faculty staff member who has made outstanding contributions to the Public Health Sciences Division.
Nicol-Blades, who has also been known to vacation with a laptop in tow to handle any potential work emergencies that might crop up, shrugs off her diligent work ethic. "I'm sure everyone does those things to some degree," she said.
It's that unassuming nature that has earned Nicol-Blades the respect of countless Center colleagues throughout the years — and there have been many.
"Star Wars" was debuting in theaters and a new baseball team known as the Seattle Mariners was warming up for its first season in 1977 when Nicol-Blades found what would become her life's work. It was during the days of computer punch cards and typewriters that she got her foot in the door at the Center as a secretary and data technician in the Epidemiologic Research Unit.
"There were just three of us here in the ERU when I started," she said. "Working on the day-to-day aspects of the research, I became extremely familiar with how the studies were run," she said. When the project manager on one of the studies left, Dr. David Thomas promoted Nicol-Blades into the position she has held ever since.
Diverse and rewarding work
As project manager, she oversees different epidemiologic studies, taking them from the very beginning with the principal investigators, designing the questionnaires, developing forms, hiring new staff to do field work, and working with the Institutional Review Board. In all, she has managed more than 25 different studies for eight different principal investigators.
"I like the diversity. There are so many different pieces of it and I never get bored. I like the fact that what we do makes a difference in the world," said Nicol-Blades, who is a breast-cancer survivor. "I'm proud to be able to say that I work at the Hutchinson Center. It's an honor."
When the Center honored her with the Farwell Award in early April, Nicol-Blades was completely floored. "I had been told four days earlier that a member of our department had won and everyone was asked to be there to honor him," she said. "I was very happy for him, and although it was my day off, I went in." When she heard Dr. John Potter begin the presentation by saying that the winner had been with the Center 30 years, and then referred to the recipient as "she," Nicol-Blades suddenly realized all the effort that had gone into keeping her nomination quiet.
Farwell's friend and colleague
"This award is especially meaningful since I knew Margaret Farwell," Nicol-Blades said. "Jan Kikuchi and I have been friends and co-workers here for 29 years. The two of us would go over to chat and play practical jokes on her. She was just so much fun, a great lady, and a talented professional."
That sense of professionalism has helped Nicol-Blades navigate some very difficult times in her division. The work in her unit is winding down after funding difficulties — about 80 percent of the staff has been or will be laid off. She helped keep morale up through a very trying time by helping to arrange sessions with job counselors through Human Resources, keeping people on staff as long as possible, and assisting with job transitions. "The people that I work with, all of us within this group, have been here for 15-plus years each. It's a family. I just love these people," Nicol-Blades said.
She plans to retire in June, but will continue working until all pieces of her current projects are laid to rest. "Leaving this place is going to be really, really hard. My fondest memories here are with my friends."
In her nomination letters, her hospitality and friendship with team members is mentioned again and again. "She is a person who is concerned not only with the quality of data, but also with quality in relationships with her co-workers. She is a caring manager and co-worker, and is a person of great energy and generosity. She is famous for her wonderful staff crab dinners and movie nights, which were looked forward to eagerly by Epi Unit staff," wrote Terri Watson, systems analyst/programmer. "She is basically the foundation of the unit; it is hard to imagine this unit without her when she retires."
"Berta exemplifies all the positive words that one can use to describe an ideal employee," wrote Kikuchi. "We have been blessed to know her as a colleague and friend."
"I cannot think of anyone who has consistently modeled the spirit of excellence and initiative better than Berta," wrote Dr. Thomas Vaughan. "She has encouraged an attitude of fun, compassion, humanity and honesty among her co-workers that has made the ERU a special place to work over the years."
But Nicol-Blades is quick to divert the attention. "I don't feel like this award is just mine. I feel like my whole group has earned this award and deserves it. I couldn't do what I do if it weren't for everybody else in this family we've created."