Hutch News Stories

Essential workers illustrate the Heart of the Hutch

While buildings remain more than half empty, hundreds of people keep science going and campus running amid pandemic
Operating Engineer Daniel Bussman
Operating Engineer Daniel Bussman monitors campus operations from his workstation in the Hutchinson Building. He is an essential worker in the Facilities Department. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Heart of the Hutch: Essential Worker edition

We have been profiling people who illustrate the culture and spirit of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center with the Heart of the Hutch series. This edition focuses on the essential workers.

Constant oversight and adjustment

Daniel Bussman is part of the autonomic nervous system of the Fred Hutch campus. As an operating engineer on the Facilities Control Team he monitors the systems that controls air flow and temperature regulation throughout the buildings. Much like the human body, there are a lot of moving parts that need constant oversight and adjustment for healthy operation – especially because unlike a typical office campus, there are a range of types of facilities.

“The system includes boilers, chillers, air handlers, and evaporative cooling. We also monitor all the freezers and incubators that are hooked up to our Lab Data Acquisition System (LDAS), the fire alarm systems. We respond to alarms for anything else that is connected to our front end,” says Bussman.

In the eight years he has been at Fred Hutch, Daniel says he enjoyed working with his teammates, particularly the pizza-fueled crew meetings they used to have.

Daniel downplays the challenges in his daily routine since the pandemic began. “Besides not being able to attend in-person meetings and wearing masks, not much else has changed. The buildings and equipment inside of them still require 24/7/365 attention,” he says, “Business is done differently now. It just seems less personal and more automated.”

Additionally, the Facilities Department is shifting its attention to the reduction of energy costs by evaluating areas on campus that are currently unoccupied as many Fred Hutch employees continue working from home like nearly half of Seattle adults, according to the Seattle Times.

About this series

Since early March of 2020, when Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center activated its mandatory remote work policy, followed a couple of weeks later by Governor Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home” proclamation, we have become familiar with the term “essential worker.”

Fred Hutch’s list of essential workers includes more than 950 scientific and 450 administrative employees. Shelby Barnes, senior director of Communications, works on the Incident Command Team, and she is an essential worker. Barnes said assembling Fred Hutch’s list of essential workers was a distributed effort led by team leaders, operations directors and lab managers.

Shelby Barnes, Niki Robinson, Jodi Burke
Fred Hutch's Shelby Barnes, Niki Robinson and Jodi Burke. Fred Hutch file photos

Heart of the Hutch

Essential Workers edition

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“There is at least one essential worker from every single team,” said Deputy Chief Operating Officer Niki Robinson. Those workers “include people who are on campus all of the time as well as folks who are on campus sometimes.”

Fred Hutch leadership stresses the term ‘essential worker’ is not about the importance of a person or their job. It’s about whether or not a job has to be done on-site.

“It’s our own internal definition that’s specific to who we needed to keep the doors open and the lights on,” said Jodi Burke, associate vice president of Human Resources.

While more than a third of the Fred Hutch staff is categorized as essential, only a few are on the South Lake Union campus consistently. Foot traffic between buildings is light and doors rarely open.  But inside essential workers are providing security, maintaining facilities and cleaning common areas. Most importantly, research continues as most labs, including Shared Resources, are open, developing cures for cancer, COVID-19, HIV and related diseases.

We’ll be profiling these essential workers and hear the stories about working in a half-empty campus over the coming months that illustrate the Heart of the Hutch.

Research Technician Karthikeya Gottimukkala
Research Technician Karthikeya Gottimukkala is an essential worker in the Adair Lab. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

All hands on deck

Research Technician Karthikeya Gottimukkala’s eyes stare out from above his black mask as he quietly packs another box in Dr. Jen Adair lab’s tissue culture room. His team is preparing to move their entire lab to the Steam Plant building in a few days. It’s hard, sweaty work, and it’s all hands on deck. The pressure is on to get the move done – hers is one of the first labs to move. Adair directs the activities, and she breaks the tension with a joke leading Gottimukkala’s eyes to sparkle. “It’s hard to be sarcastic with a mask on. I miss the smiling faces,” he says.

Gottimukkala moved from upstate New York a year ago to work at Fred Hutch, and when he isn’t packing boxes, he says Adair encourages him to think outside the box.  “The lab has a positive vibe 24/7.” He appreciates that Adair gives him the freedom to try new experiments without being afraid of making mistakes.

Adair chose Gottimukkala as her lab’s essential worker at the beginning of Fred Hutch’s pandemic response because he was trained enough to run experiments without additional help and because he lives close to campus, which made it convenient for him to maintain the lab’s cell cultures.

COVID-19 has been challenging for lab work. “It did slow down the research and planned experiments, but we used the extra time to prepare for future experiments. We are adapting to this new scenario and are trying to be as productive as possible,” he says.

When asked what he misses about pre-pandemic life at Fred Hutch, Gottimukkala smiles and says he misses free seminar cookies and Friday beer hour. Outside of work, he heads to nearby hiking trails, “The Pacific Northwest has a lot to offer!”

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Last Modified, October 20, 2020