The problem solvers: Stanford honors staff who help make research possible

Whether by managing hundreds of computers or keeping labs running smoothly, Stanford’s research staff provide critical support to researchers as they catalyze discovery and accelerate solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

This month, Stanford honors two staff members – lab services manager Cathy Booth and computing support analyst Brian Palermo – with the 2021 Marsh O’Neill Award for Exceptional and Enduring Support of Stanford University’s Research Enterprise.

The prestigious award was inspired by the career of Marsh O’Neill, associate director of the WW Hansen Laboratories from 1952 until 1990, and the first recipient of the award.

The award is presented annually to members of the university’s staff accompanied by a $5,000 cash prize in recognition of faculty appreciation for outstanding contributions to Stanford’s research mission.

More than two dozen faculty members nominated 14 staff for the award this year. Keeping with tradition, Marsh O’Neill provided input on the nominations, and his recommendations were shared with the award selection committee, made up of four faculty and administered by the Office of the Vice Provost and Dean of Research (VPDoR).

The award will be presented on Aug. 30 at a reception hosted by VPDoR.

Cathy Booth, lab services manager, Molecular and Cellular Physiology

Booth, who worked at Stanford for more than 40 years before retiring in May, joined the newly formed Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology (MCP) in 1992.

Miriam Goodman, chair of the Department of Molecular Cellular Physiology (left), said lab services manager Cathy Booth has played a key role in running MCP’s lab facilities. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“We have a wonderful department. Our faculty and administrators were great to work with,” Booth said. “It’s been a really fun 30 years with all of them. They’re committed to being good to their staff, and that’s important to me. The team I worked with is amazing, and it just makes the whole department right.”

Booth was nominated by five faculty members from MCP, including Miriam Goodman, MCP department chair and the Mrs. George A. Winzer Professor of Cell Biology.

“(Cathy) played a key role in developing and building the wet bench research labs and was tasked with managing the facilities, health and safety, and space for MCP – a tall order to take on with many things left to be established,” Goodman wrote in re-appointment letter. “Through the years, Cathy supported the department’s researchers and facilities with her savvy poise and dedication.”

Booth was surprised and humbled to learn that she would receive the award, noting that there are many dedicated staff members also deserving of recognition.

“I happened to work where somebody will stop and let you know how much they appreciate you,” Booth said. “I’ve been really lucky that I had the opportunity to work in that department for 30 years.”

Booth’s work, scope, and responsibilities were fixed; she provided steadfast support to 13 department faculty and their research facility needs, along with helping to onboard all positions that joined MCP, which includes more than 40 research staff positions, 75 postdocs, 35 graduate students, and eight administrative staff.

Booth focused on keeping the facility running smoothly and often found creative ways to keep costs down, extend longevity of resources, and address any issues that could potentially stop research.

“When there was a problem and I knew the answer, or could figure out the answer and get them what they needed, that felt great,” Booth said. “That was always a highlight. As I was there longer and longer, I just knew things, and that was very enjoyable. It was one of the perks of being someplace for a long time.”

Brian Palermo, computing support analyst, Chemistry/University IT

Palermo started at Stanford 22 years ago and has been a full-time staff member in the Department of Chemistry for 17 years, seeing it as a true team experience.

Brian Palermo, a computing support analyst in the Chemistry Department (left), helps manage hundreds of computers that facilitate the work of researchers such as Michael Fayer, the David Mulvane Ehrsam and Edward Curtis Franklin Professor of Chemistry. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“I’m not a scientist like them. I wouldn’t understand their level of research, but I think every piece plays a part,” Palermo said. “If their computers aren’t working, they won’t be able to do their research so I’m there to help and make sure the research is able to continue.”

Palermo manages hundreds of computers in the Chemistry Department, which includes specialized computer needs for a wide range of chemists. Six faculty members nominated Palermo for the award, noting his patience, cheerful demeanor, responsiveness, creativity, and invaluable service that enables faculty to focus on research and teaching.

Michael Fayer, the David Mulvane Ehrsam and Edward Curtis Franklin Professor of Chemistry, described Palermo as of “fundamental importance” to Fayer’s own research and that of the entire Chemistry Department’s functioning.

“The Chemistry Department is a giant computer system with some solvent cabinets, fume hoods, and lasers attached,” Fayer wrote in a nomination letter. “Brian keeps that giant computer system functioning and adapting to new tasks … We are extremely fortunate to have Brian dedicated to Chemistry.”

Palermo was excited to learn he received the award. “I thought it was really nice of the professors to nominate me and I appreciate that,” he said. “But I didn’t expect to actually get it, and so when I did, I was very excited.”

Palermo said he enjoys helping others and solving puzzles, such as troubleshooting why a computer isn’t communicating with a scientific instrument he’s never seen before.

“The research is interesting,” he said. “One, scientifically, and two, some of the labs have made possible advancements for disease cures. I find that being able to support that kind of research is important.”

The committee reviewing the 2021 Marsh O’Neill nominations included:

  • Jennifer Dionne, senior associate vice provost for research platforms/shared facilities, associate professor of materials science and engineering, senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy, and associate professor, by courtesy, of radiology
  • Peter Michelson, senior associate dean for the natural sciences and the Luke Blossom Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, professor of physics. Member of the VPDoR Limited Awards Committee. Served on the Marsh O’Neill Award selection committee for the 2020 award.
  • David Studdert, acting vice provost for research, senior associate vice provost for data resources, and professor of health policy (PCOR) and of law
  • George Triantis, senior associate vice provost for research and the Charles J. Meyers Professor of Law and Business Law School