Heart of the Hutch: Essential Worker edition
Another world exists under your feet and above your head as you walk around the Fred Hutch campus. You feel and hear it more than you see it, because it exists just out of view. You might glimpse it when you pass an open, unmarked basement door. You can see it during the disorienting times when the elevator door opens on one of the interstitial floors. Poke your head through that door, and you’ll discover an essential industrial landscape dotted with blazing hot boilers and massive air handlers. Pipes and cables run every direction. It’s a loud place where electric motors, pumps and fans run constantly.
The inhabitants of this world are different. Hard hats, heavy boots and safety vests seem out of place at a cancer research center. A few of these people are hunched over control panels interpreting colorful flashing lights. Others gather supplies and tools for what appears to be an essential repair or maintenance mission.
In the middle of it all, bright fluorescent light spills out of an open office door. In that small room sits a man staring at his team’s schedule on a computer monitor. He says 24/7 scheduling of campus-wide monitoring and maintenance is one of the most challenging parts of his job.
Kenny Lind has been here almost since the beginning of Fred Hutch’s South Lake Union campus, where the organization moved in the 1990s, and he has been involved with developing it from 350,000 square feet during Phase 1 campus construction to its now nearly two million square feet of research labs and office space. Starting as an operating engineer in 1995, Lind worked his way up, and in 2009 he was selected as the chief engineer.
His job is what they had in mind when the term "essential worker" was coined.
“I’m responsible for supervising the power plant team and the five boiler plants that consist of 15 hot water boilers, two high pressure steam boilers, seven water-cooled chillers with cooling towers, and five air-cooled chillers,” says Lind.
As the chief engineer, Lind is also responsible for developing the training for new hires and apprentices. His goal is to enable new staff member to obtain Seattle steam engineer licenses so he can certify them as "Watch Standers" and get them into his more than 40-person team schedule.
COVID-19 made that schedule much more complicated. At the beginning of the pandemic Lind had to divide his team in two and keep both halves away from each other via two-week campus working rotations. He says it’s gotten easier over time.
Nodding toward teammates outside his office who are loading a cart with tools, Lind says, “Researchers may not fully appreciate the complexity of the operations that support their work. We encourage touring behind the scenes to all those who are interested. However, due to the current COVID protocols, that may have to wait a while.”
Since early March of 2020, when Fred Hutch activated its mandatory remote work policy, followed a couple of weeks later by Gov. 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.
Heart of the Hutch
Essential Workers edition
“There is at least one essential worker from every single team,” said Deputy Chief Operating Officer Dr. 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.
Looking out from her office door, located in the formerly bustling Weintraub Building atrium, Luna Yu hears the rolling rumble of a package delivery cart two floors below. The sound echoes like distant thunder through the empty halls of one of the biggest buildings on campus. Gazing across the large atrium, Yu says, “Fred Hutch has a beautiful campus, but what really sets it apart are the faculty, the trainees, the students and the support staff.” She says it’s the enthusiasm, intelligence and innovation of the people that matters. Yu’s essential work is to help all those people stay connected.
Many Fred Hutch employees didn’t have to think too hard when the mandatory remote-work policy was announced in March. They took laptop computers home, connected to their WiFi and logged in to the Hutch systems. People like Yu, a divisional information technology senior manager, are why that transition went smoothly. Describing her duties, she says “I manage and perform IT services and support for the Basic Sciences and Human Biology divisions.” Yu’s duties also extend to partnering with other scientific divisions and Center IT to ensure compliance with Hutch-wide and division-specific policies and standards. She’s also responsible for interacting with vendors and troubleshooting in-lab computer problems.
Yu, who started at Fred Hutch in 1994, enjoys being the first point-of-contact for her divisions’ employees who need IT services. Yu believes she is contributing to the accomplishments of the scientific community by helping employees acquire and use technology. “Now, more than ever, IT support is absolutely crucial to Fred Hutch staying productive. Supporting remote work and communication presents many challenges, but it is essential to keeping us connected,” she said.
Supporting platforms, programs and devices across two divisions is difficult, and Yu is quick to praise co-workers Pat Heath and David Chambers. “I can’t do my job alone. I have a strong team. We’re committed,” she said.
Yu’s team has put the quieter on-campus circumstances to good use. She says, “It was very odd to see empty offices and almost-empty wet labs. However, this is prime time for replacement or upgrade of legacy lab computers.” So, with a hopeful eye on the future, Yu and her team continue the essential work of improving Fred Hutch’s information technology infrastructure while most of us continue working from home.
Walking into Steve MacFarlane’s workspace feels like stepping into a science-fiction movie. His job as an electron microscopy specialist in Fred Hutch Shared Resources' Cellular Imaging core puts him in front of a dizzying array of microscopes and technology that allow researchers to see deep into our microscopic world. He says he enjoys doing his part for the advancement of science and the solving the cancer puzzle. “Plus, peering at the working parts inside of a cell or a small organism never gets old for me.”
MacFarlane’s duties include maintaining and operating a constellation of specialized equipment, and he’s also responsible for designing and carrying out procedures that lead up to imaging samples. “They are not the kind of microscopes where you bring a sample in and begin imaging right away. If the prep isn't correct and appropriate then the images are difficult, if not impossible, to acquire and interpret, says MacFarlane. Some procedures take weeks, but MacFarlane’s 32 years of experience in electron microscopy allow him to spot pitfalls before they happen. He says, “Attention to minute detail and patience pays off when you provide beautiful and useful images.”
The initial period of Fred Hutch’s stay-home order was difficult for MacFarlane, but he made the most of it. “As a microscopist, there was only so much I could do at home in front of a computer,” he says. His team spent that time making sure their online communications, files and protocols were up to date. After that, he did a lot of online learning, which he says “ended up being pretty valuable.”
As campus access was slowly and carefully dialed up, MacFarlane was part of the first wave of essential employees returning to campus in mid-May to support COVID-19-related research and ongoing cancer patient clinical trials. He says being back in the lab was a relief. “It was a little surreal at first, as if everything was in suspended animation. As soon as more personnel came back on-site, we began getting more requests for EM work and it was great to be able to offer that support again.”
MacFarlane’s workspace in the basement of the Thomas Building currently sounds like a spaceship in dry dock for repairs. It’s being remodeled to accommodate a new cryo-EM-capable device, and MacFarlane has to speak loudly over the sound of hammers and saws when he says, “I am hopeful that once the new microscopes are online and the facility is back to ‘normal’ we will continue to see a steady stream of interesting and challenging projects come our way.”
If you’ve wondered why Fred Hutch’s campus operates so smoothly, it’s because of essential workers like Operating Engineer Mark Hungerford. Hungerford, a 23-year veteran of the Facilities team, manages electrical infrastructure upgrades across campus, including new construction projects.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Hungerford's team had to assume the worst about COVID-19’s contagiousness. With typical engineering precision, they created a plan to ensure their ability to keep the campus up and running. “There was an on-site team, a backup for them, and then a core team held in reserve — working at home to stay isolated and clean in case a major contagion hit the other two groups. I was in the core group. So, I set up a home office and carried on from there,” says Hungerford. “As soon as it was judged to be the safe way to proceed, we were all brought back to campus.” Hungerford is proud of his team’s resilience in helping Fred Hutch scientists adapt and respond to the pandemic. “It’s something to be proud of,” he says.
Hungerford, whose office is located in the blueprint archive room of the Fairview Building, says his day-to-day job hasn’t significantly changed since he returned to his office on campus. “There is less in-person collaboration with vendors and design engineers, but this industry segment in Seattle has adapted quite well,” he says.
However, for someone who is all about strategic planning, the pandemic has created a unique problem. Hungerford says, “The status of funding for our projects has been more difficult to pin down. That makes it hard to plan.” Glancing over at the hundreds of blueprint drawings in the archive room he continues, “Much of what I work on can take months or longer to execute so not knowing adds complications when there’s an overarching timeline to get things completed.”
People who drive through campus these days can see Hungerford's strategic plans in action. Two buildings have been torn down where the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance clinic extension is being built. The Minor Building has been renovated to create the COVID-19 Clinical Research Center. The Steam Plant renovation was just completed. Hungerford and his team of essential workers had a hand in all of that. The pandemic won’t last forever. One day, most employees will be able to go back to working on campus, and they will be surprised by how much has been done while they were working from home.
Andrea Towlerton is infectious, or rather her energy and attitude is. She is a project manager in the Warren Lab. On a recent afternoon she was laser-focused, sequencing HIV samples at her bench. Her green-gloved hands operate a multi-channel pipette, expertly moving from one rack of sample tubes to another as she softly yells a question to a teammate two benches away.
“We’re all essential,” Towlerton says when asked about coworkers who aren’t in the lab. Gesturing to an empty chair a few feet away, Towlerton explains she can’t do her work without the computational work done by a colleague in the lab.
Behind Towlerton, across the aisle, sits a waist-high stack of cardboard boxes filled with 900 N-95 masks. She was shipping them to her Global Oncology partners at the Uganda Cancer Institute in Kampala.
Towlerton says over her 10 years at the Hutch, she has never worked harder than during the last few months. “From the day the Hutch shut down, I walked the dark halls,” Towlerton said before taking a long, deep breath, “Working to help out the SCAN study, and the specimens coming in for testing, working with Uganda's ministry of health, and keeping our own lab running — and still applying for grants.”
Looking up from the bench, her voice hints at fatigue as she continues, “It's been a very emotional time. It's been super challenging, and I've never seen anything like this.”
Towlerton pauses to refocus on her bench work, “We can't lose hope. There is always something to smile about. There is so much to still be thankful for. We still celebrate birthdays. We have a Ph.D. dissertation coming up. Life is still moving forward. We have to. Right?”
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, Bussman says he enjoyed working with his teammates, particularly the pizza-fueled crew meetings they used to have.
Bussman 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.
Research Technician Karthikeya Gottimukkala’s eyes stare out from above his black mask as he quietly packs another box in Dr. Jen Adair's 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 said. 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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Robert Hood is the senior multimedia producer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He worked on the award-winning multimedia team at MSNBC.com and NBCNews.com for almost two decades, covering national and international news and coordinating special projects. Before that he taught photojournalism at the University of Missouri, worked as a newspaper page designer in Missouri, and worked as a newspaper photojournalist in Missouri, Wyoming and Utah. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.