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Lab Staff Group Gets Promotions Update

By Eddy Ball
May 2010

A man speaks at a podium
Pritchard told the audience that he'd long felt that the old promotion guidelines were too inflexible and forced technical staff to meet unrealistic criteria. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A woman receives an award from another woman while a man looks on
Starnes, left, joined Goulding, center, and Pritchard at the podium to receive her NIEHS "On the Spot" Award for the extra effort she put in to make the new guidelines a reality. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

An audience listens to a speaker off-screen. Focus is on two women in the center of the image
Although getting that top-of-range promotion will still require outstanding performance, the process will be much easier to master for NIEHS lab staff, such as Maggie Humble, left, and Andrea Moon, center. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A smiling bearded man speaks at a podium
Even though the business of promotion is a serious matter, Mason and his audience could also appreciate the lighter side of some of the stories he shared. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A group of seven smiling women pose outdoors for a photo
The officers of AoLS gathered for a group photo after their election last year. In the front row, left to right, are Paula Brown, Gina Goulding, Toni Ward, Julie Foley and Stella Sieber. In the back row are, left to right, Page Myers and Laura Miller DeGraff. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Members of the Assembly of Laboratory Staff (AoLS) heard some welcome news about promotions during their spring meeting on April 14. For the approximately 80 biologists employed at NIEHS, efforts by AoLS officers and members of the NIEHS Office of the Scientific Director (OSD) will mean a more systematic and transparent process for making the big decision.

Guest speakers at the meeting were John Pritchard, Ph.D., NIEHS acting scientific director and former chief of the NIEHS Laboratory of Pharmacology, and NIEHS Drosophila Chromosome Structure Group head James Mason, Ph.D., chair of the NIEHS Committee on Promotion III (COPIII). They were on hand to discuss revised guidelines and procedures for deciding on promotions to GS-12 for scientists working as biologists and chemists at the Institute.

Following a welcome by AoLS President Paula Brown, Pritchard prefaced his remarks by describing the occasion as "really a pleasure for me" because of his appreciation for the important role that laboratory technicians play in the Institute's scientific research. The revised guidelines, he explained, "won't open the flood gates... [but they] will give people who are doing an outstanding job an opportunity to advance."

Before turning the program over to Mason for a more detailed look at promotion guidelines and procedures, Brown and AoLS past President Gina Goulding joined Pritchard at the podium to honor a special member of the guidelines revision team - Emily Starnes, of the NIEHS Office of Management.

As a token of OSD and AoLS appreciation, Goulding presented Starnes with an NIEHS "On the Spot" Award in recognition of her day-to-day extra efforts and contributions outside her normal duties and responsibilities. Pritchard and Brown echoed Goulding's assessment that "without Emily, it would never have happened."

From the beginning, efforts by AoLS and OSD to revise promotion guidelines have enjoyed the support of NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. Birnbaum addressed attendees at the AoLS organizing meeting in March 2009, telling the audience that the promotion issue is "something that's already on my radar screen" (see related story(

Shortly afterwards, when Pritchard took the helm at OSD, one of his priorities was working with members of the lab staff to address their concerns about top-of-range promotions, core competencies, training opportunities, and procedures for reassigning displaced workers when labs close or are merged.

As the meeting came to a close, the subject turned to the next challenge for AoLS - professional development. Brown urged her colleagues to make their needs known because, she said, "Better training for lab staff is really to help the Institute, not just you."

An audience listens to a speaker off-screen. Focus is on a man in the foreground.
Never ones to rest on their laurels, members of AoLS listened to David Goulding, shown above in the audience, talk about a survey of members' professional development needs. Goulding is part of a six-member subcommittee gathering data on member demographics and training preferences. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Negotiating the Promotions Process

Mason, the keynote speaker at the meeting, took attendees step by step through the revised guidelines and offered lab staff pointers on presenting their case to the COPIII Promotions Committee. He explained that the new guidelines offer more flexibility because they require candidates to meet a majority of equally important benchmarks - rather than all the criteria, as they had to previously.

Although candidates still must submit three letters from referees - at least one of them from outside NIEHS - interviews are no longer required. Mason said he meets with the principal investigators ahead of time to encourage them to address promotion criteria clearly and directly. He urged members of the lab staff to take a proactive role in the process and make sure they are familiar with the benchmarks they need to address in the promotion package.

With everything in place, Mason explained, the committee can schedule a meeting and reach its decision in as few as two weeks. Historically, the committee has reached a near consensus, rarely with more than one dissenting vote.

The nine-member committee, he said, "represents a balance of principal investigators and staff scientists" with a GS-12 level biologist participating on petitions for a promotion from GS-11 to GS-12. He reminded the audience that the committee votes on recommendations to the scientific director, who is the official in charge of making the final decision.

Speaking from the audience, NTP Toxicology Branch Biologist Dori Germolec, Ph.D., reinforced Mason's advice. "You really are the most important piece in the process," she told the audience. "Take a proactive role to help your supervisor write a better letter."

For her part, as the Assembly of Scientists secretary and liaison to AoLS, Germolec promised to remind her colleagues that it is critical to support of lab staff up for promotion.

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