Guest post: Making the most of peer networking

March 8, 2012 | Posted by Guest in Core facilities |

This is a guest post by Susanna Perkins, Director of Research Cores & Operations in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at University of Massachusetts Medical School (full bio below). 

Seven years ago, I was hired by the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) to centralize their core facilities management from an operations perspective.  We have 43 core facilities, one of the largest centralized institutional organizations.  Prior to centralization, each was managed from within their home department.  Funding for these facilities flows through the institution, but answering simple questions about how the money was being used was difficult when it involved a dozen different accountants and administrators.  Now that everything is under one organization, we are able to produce quarterly reports that include all the financials, usage, grant support, personnel, etc….  It presents an overview of the entire system, and is also a tool to help us manage across facilities.  For example, if one facility is exceeding revenue projections and will not require as much institutional support, we can offset a less profitable facility with the excess funds.  Centralization allows the institution to utilize our Core funding where it is needed the most – toggling the funding throughout the year as the revenue & expense trends solidify.

I came from the private sector, doing financials for a company producing computer disk drives.  My skillset was an excellent match for this position, which is essentially overseeing the operations of 43 small nonprofit companies.  Because many of the people within core facilities come from a science background, I can assist by bringing business expertise on budgeting, marketing, web sites, and other accounting activities that many science-based Core Directors are more than willing to offload.  This allows the Directors to focus their attention and resources on their technical areas of expertise.

Inevitably, in financially challenging times, my job also entails providing recommendations for the prioritization of funding for facilities.  The Vice Provost for Research makes the difficult decisions, which are weighted by more factors than just profitability numbers, but my work directly informs those decisions.

UMMS is a large institution, yet this is a very unique operations position.  So, when I was invited to be a speaker at the 2008 North East Regional Life Sciences Core Directors (NERLSCD) meeting, I was excited to discover such a great opportunity to network and share information with my peers & colleagues.  I discovered people with diverse backgrounds doing similar functions at other institutions.  I was honored to be asked to be part of the NERLSCD Planning Committee for the 2009 meeting and then to have UMMS host the NERLSCD 2010 meeting.

Now, NERLSCD is the most recent chapter of Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities (ABRF); I am traveling to Orlando in a few days to meet face-to-face with the other chapter Treasurers and participate in ABRF 2012.  Because I do not have a scientific background, I look forward to the more management-related workshops at the conference.  We have found in our regional meetings that the most active conversations are on topics that everyone has to struggle with, e.g., How do you get external grants for your facility? How do you deal with career tracks for your personnel?  We had a discussion panel a few years ago entitled “Hot Topics for Administration” in which there were so much interest and excitement that we rearranged future agendas to accommodate more management issues.

So, at ABRF 2012, I’m sure I’ll attend the round table session, “Models for Core Management and Administration: Perspectives from Members of the Core Administrators Network,” on Tuesday afternoon.  I am also interested in the session, “Cores Without Borders – International Models of Collaboration and What We Can Learn from Each Other.”    I also plan to spend as much time as my schedule permits networking with colleagues and discussing ideas.

One issue of recent focus is that of service contract providers.  These are 3rd party businesses that service core facility equipment and can offer substantial savings over individual service agreements with manufacturers. Many core facilities are turning to this model for support. But, as with any industry, the range of performance can vary greatly and it’s not always easy to know that in advance. Shortly after a 3rd party service provider program was put in place by UMMS, I attended a meeting on Efficient Management of Core Facilities that was held by the National Institutes of Health.  By chance, I met a peer from another institution who was struggling with the same implementation.  In addition, through the ABRF listserve of Core Administrators, there was a posting asking for input on the exact 3rd party provider we have been using.   The ability to connect with these other Administrators is priceless in this field.   The opportunity to learn from her direct experience was invaluable and exactly the reason that peer networking is so essential.

About the author

Susanna Perkins is the Director of Research Cores & Operations in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at University of Massachusetts Medical School, where she has operational responsibility for 40+ Research Core Facilities within the University of Massachusetts.  She is the newly-elected Treasurer of the North East Regional Life Sciences Core Directors, now a chapter of the Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities.  Her prior experience is in operations and financial management for the computer industry.  She has a B.S in Business Management from Assumption College and an M.S. in Human Service Management from Worcester State University.

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