Environmental Factor, April 2009, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Assembly Forms to Represent Technical Staff
By Eddy Ball
As far as its organizers know, the first meeting of the Assembly of Laboratory Staff (AoLS) at NIEHS on March 4 may also be the only meeting of an organization of its kind ever anywhere in the NIH network of institutes and centers (ICs). Even Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who spoke at the well-attended meeting, said she'd never heard of an NIH organization devoted exclusively to communicating the interests of laboratory staff in the hiring, promotion and working-condition processes that impact their lives on a daily basis.
Spokesperson Goulding, a biologist in the NIEHS Gamete Biology Group (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/lrdt/gamete/staff.cfm) with more than 25 years experience in labs at NIEHS, said that the AoLS will provide a forum for training, career advancement and resource sharing through a database the assembly plans to develop for members - as well as develop Core Competency Models and explore displaced worker options for employees affected by labs that close when principal investigators leave the Institute for retirement or other positions and when jobs are outsourced to private contractors.
Empowering the Institute's estimated 176 laboratory staff with the means for being heard by lab chiefs and administrators is another reason for the AoLS, explained Goulding. "The group will take a careful look at promotion and evaluation guidelines," she added, "and work to get them updated." Goulding joined other members of the AoLS Steering Committee in encouraging lab staff to participate, to nominate officers and, most importantly, to vote for their Council members.
The keynote talk by Birnbaum took up most of the first half of the meeting, during which she emphasized her accessibility to employees throughout the Institute. She quickly established rapport with the group by telling them, "Please, I'm Linda. If you ask for 'Dr. Birnbaum,' I tend to look around for somebody else." She also assured the audience that "I'm really thrilled that this group has started" and said she foresees the AoLS as providing a lead for development of best practices across NIH by "working together to address common goals, common interests, to move things forward faster."
Early on in her talk, Birnbaum proved she was not afraid to confront some of the challenges that the technical staff face in their jobs. In response to a question about promotion potential for technical staff, for example, Birnbaum shared her opinion that "people shouldn't have to walk on water" to get promoted. She said of the promotion issue, "It's something that's already on my radar screen."
Following Birnbaum's remarks, Goulding outlined the history of the AoLS, which was created following a recommendation by the Organizational Climate Committee in the wake of last year's audit of NIEHS operations and morale. After addressing the purpose of the AoLS, she turned to the question of "where do we go from here?" and introduced her colleagues on the Steering Committee, who took turns presenting their reports on the group's constitution, organizational structure, and the nominating and voting procedure for choosing the group's officers.
Along with Birnbaum, Assembly of Scientists (AoS) Secretary and National Toxicology Program Biologist Dori Gormolec, Ph.D., was on hand to show support for the group and offer tips on how the AoLS can become an effective voice for its members. She encouraged members to petition for seats on the AoS, search committees and the NIEHS Division of Intramural Research Council, which is made up of principal investigators and the scientific director.
(Note: The AoLS has set up a website, which employees may access within the Institute's internal network or offsite via an NIH/NIEHS connection.)
Making a Difference for NIEHS Lab Staff -
The Men and Women Behind AoLS
Spokesperson Gina Goulding was quick to note that it took the concerted efforts of an energetic group of volunteers, several of whom made presentations at the meeting, to make the AoLS a reality:
- Biologist Lisa Padilla-Banks, Reproductive Medicine Group (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/clinical/rm/staff.cfm), who outlined the nomination and election process for choosing the group's representatives
- Biologist Paula Brown, Gamete Biology Group (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/lrdt/gamete/staff.cfm), who introduced the AoLS website and explained the roles of the four Council members
- Biological Science Laboratory Technician Laura Miller DeGraff, Molecular and Cellular Biology Group (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/lrb/biology/staff.cfm), who co-presented ideas the Steering Committee had gathered for future directions and discussion
- Biologist Page Myers, Comparative Medicine Branch, who presented with DeGraff
- Biologist Mark Rubino, Metastasis Group, who joined fellow Steering Committee members on the stage
- Biological Science Laboratory Technician Stella Sieber, Laboratory of Molecular Toxicology, who is the group's secretary and scribe