In 1989, Myra Tanita walked through the doors of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center for an interview for an internship she didn’t think she really wanted.
She changed her mind. And then, she stayed.
Today, Tanita announced her retirement from her 26-year career at the Hutch, where she has served as executive vice president and COO since 2003.
“I think that something new is good both for the organization and also for me,” she said, noting she’s been in her current job for more than 10 years and is ready for the next challenge. “Change is good.”
Dr. Mark Groudine, executive vice president and deputy director of Fred Hutch, has worked with Tanita for decades.
“Myra is the glue that holds the place together,” Groudine said.
Tanita’s thoughtfulness, teambuilding and hard work have shaped Fred Hutch’s direction and that of its treatment arm, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, her colleagues say. Dec. 11 will be her last day at the center.
Her impact has been immeasurable, said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. D. Gary Gilliland.
“Myra has been a stalwart and invaluable operations chief for the more than 12 years she’s had the role,” he said. “Myra manages a huge, complex organization and it is clear that she commands respect across this campus.”
She’s known for her ability to bring people together and for her fierce loyalty, say those who know her.
“She has been the driving force behind the relationships behind our institution,” said Han Nachtrieb, the Hutch’s VP of Human Resources. “The great value has been the fact that before she was the COO, she was the VP of planning and strategic development — she’s been a constant behind the strategy of this institution for two decades.”
In 1989, Tanita was a graduate student in University of Washington’s Masters in Health Administration program. She decided to go on an interview for an administrative internship at Fred Hutch — a place no one she’d talked to seemed to know much about — more to gain interview experience than to try to land the job.
But the place, and its people, quickly ignited her passion.
“I was really taken by the fact that there was a group of folks that were focused on the next technology,” Tanita said. “It wasn’t about treating people and doing the best job of treating people, but to say, ‘How do we get to the point where we can eliminate cancer?’”
The transplant from Hawaii certainly never expected she’d grow accustomed to Seattle’s dreary winters. But her internship quickly led to full-time positions in patient care administration and then a series of organizational planning roles, which transitioned into her first VP appointment in 1998. Tanita has held 10 different positions at the Hutch.
As a leader, Tanita’s style is reminiscent of that of bone marrow transplant pioneer Dr. E. Donnall Thomas. Tanita still speaks admiringly of how Thomas built a team at the Hutch in which everyone, from receptionist to doctor, was united by a common commitment and passion for developing transplantation as a lifesaving therapy for cancer. Similarly, she has also strived to nurture others’ passion for the work, she said.
“I don’t believe in having a job just to have a job. What we do and why we come to work should be a vocation, should be a passion. It should fulfill our dreams, it should be satisfying, it should be fun,” Tanita said. “Leadership is about creating the environment, and the potential, for that to grow and thrive.”
Nachtrieb describes Tanita as a humble and egalitarian leader, and those qualities are apparent in her reluctance to talk about her own individual achievements during her years at the Hutch.
What she wants to talk about instead are the things that have been most meaningful to her: the opportunities to plan for the future of the Hutch. Her efforts to develop new leaders from within. Bringing diverse people together to solve complex problems.
In fact, it’s that commitment to tackling problems by considering multiple points of view that is one of the hallmarks of her time at the Hutch, her colleagues said, from planning for the birth of the SCCA in the 1990s to her cross-institutional initiatives today.
“She is very thoughtful and considered in her approach. She always attempts to get a balanced view,” Nachtrieb said. “She looks to find the right path rather than use power to make swift decisions.”
Groudine remembered how Tanita “really helped step in” to ensure that the center’s technology transfer and information technology departments continued to function at a high level as the center sought permanent heads for these groups.
“She manages massive amounts of administrative work — IT, tech transfer, facilities, HR, IRO [the Institutional Review Office], clinical trials — and she cuts across all departments in a way to ensure that administration is there to ensure the advancement of the science,” Groudine said.
Tanita has made a commitment to building bridges not only between people within the Hutch but also between the Hutch and the larger community through her work as a volunteer board member for numerous organizations. These include the Marsha Rivkin Center for Ovarian Cancer Research, a partnership between the Hutch and Swedish Cancer Institute; the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, of which Fred Hutch is a founding member; the Seattle Parks Foundation, whose work in the Hutch’s South Lake Union neighborhood Tanita admires; and the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, which provides a variety of services to people of Asian and East African descent in the Seattle area.
It takes remarkable energy to manage all these commitments, and Tanita’s drive is obvious in her refusal to slow down even as she approaches retirement.
“I have this very basic value, or work ethic,” she said. “I believe that because I only have a few months left, I have to work harder than before to get things done.”
She’s got a long list of things to do, she said: kick off the massive new clinical trials management system Fred Hutch is creating with UW and SCCA, streamline the center’s start-up process for clinical trials, wrap up work on new policies for faculty and work with her fellow VPs to complete an evaluation of the center’s shared scientific resources, to name just a few.
But what comes after Dec. 11 is a big question mark, and that’s both exhilarating and terrifying to Tanita.
“I’m a planner by nature — I have to plan, I have to know — and I’ve decided that I’m not making any plans,” she said. Tanita, 62, said she thinks of retiring as standing at the edge of a precipice. “I’ll just step off and trust and figure it out later.”
Each time in her life when Tanita has made a leap of faith, such as starting graduate school at 38, she’s landed on her feet. And these unexpected twists, rather than derailing her, instead defined her life’s work.
When Tanita speaks with people who ask her for career advice — and she always says ”yes” when asked — she tries to help them understand this lesson, too: that it’s not a particular job title they should chase. It’s a passion.
“I say, ‘Really know at gut level — a gut, basic level — what it is that you really love to do on a day to day basis,’” she said.
“A lot of times, particularly for younger folks, they feel like they should know exactly where they want to be, or know exactly what position they want to go for, or what their title should be, and feel that they won’t get somewhere unless they do it,” Tanita said. “So I’m a perfect example of, ‘I have no idea.’ I’d never dreamed I would be in this position.”
Susan Keown is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Before joining Fred Hutch in 2014, Susan wrote about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at email@example.com.