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An instrumental ingredient for innovation: Operations Team spotlight

The Wyss’ Operations Team works behind-the-scenes to enable collaborative, high-impact research

By Jessica Leff 

An instrumental ingredient for innovation: Operations Team spotlight
The Wyss Operations Team at the 2023 Wyss Retreat. Pictured from left to right: Yama Thoulutsang, Rachel Low, Maurice Pérez, Janeseey Simon, Robert Rasmussen, and Michael Carr. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

When the Wyss Institute was founded in 2009, its members were charged with developing technologies with the potential for near-term impact by breaking down the traditional silos of academia and collaborating across disciplines and institutions. To achieve this, we needed visionary researchers, but we also needed the infrastructure to support their work.  

In traditional academic labs, each faculty member is assigned their own space, and they establish protocols for their researchers to keep them safe and productive. The Wyss set up what we call “collaboratories,” or facilities where scientists from multiple labs work side-by-side to enable our critical cross-disciplinary work. For our collaboratories to work, we needed a team to ensure that everyone followed the same rules and procedures, keeping themselves and their colleagues safe and organized. Fifteen years later, the Wyss’ Operations Team still works to facilitate our cutting-edge research by establishing a high level of coordination and safety.   

Providing essential support 

The Operations Team provides support from the time anything arrives to the lab – be that samples, chemicals, or equipment – to the time it is disposed of in a safe matter, and everything in between. According to Senior Director of Research Operations and Biosafety Officer Robert Rasmussen, Ph.D., “Without this team, no experiments would happen.” While that may sound extreme, the researchers agree. Senior Engineer Adama Sesay, Ph.D. says, “This team is very instrumental in the everyday functioning of a normal working day in the different Wyss laboratory facilities. I don’t think there is one day that I do not interact with them. The labs just wouldn’t run as smoothly without them.” 

Lab Specialist and Operations Team member Janeseey Simon explains, “Our work is more behind-the-scenes, but we ensure whatever researchers need is there so they can use it to do whatever they need to do.”  

Meet the team 

So, who makes up this important group? Director of Research Operations Michael Carr started almost eight years ago. He oversees day-to-day research operations, manages health and safety compliance, and promotes a team-driven safety culture. Carr also loves winter hiking and the great outdoors.  

Juan Mauricio (Maurice) Pérez, Senior Tissue Culture Technician, also joined the Wyss a little over seven years ago. He works alongside Senior Tissue Culture Technician, Rachel Low, to train researchers on cell culture techniques and ensure the stock rooms are organized. Pérez enjoys traveling, especially going on cruises.  

Low manages the shared tissue culture spaces and stockrooms, as well as supporting shared resources, like CO2, liquid nitrogen, and other research materials that require temperature-sensitive storage.  Of her 12 years at the Wyss, she remarked, “There has only been one constant – change.” With that experience, she is well-equipped to manage the stockrooms and train researchers. She is a former equestrian, riding horses from age eight to eighteen.  

Janeseey Simon joined the team nearly three years ago. She supports researchers with general requests, equipment maintenance, hazardous chemical delivery, and general quality control. Simon studied mechanical engineering, and graduated from college remotely in 2020. She is the middle child of three siblings. 

The newest member of the team, Yama Thoulutsang has only been at the Wyss for about seven months, but so far he’s really enjoying it. He says, “The Wyss is fantastic. I feel so lucky to be here with this excellent team.” Thoulutsang washes all glassware and assists Low and Perez. He loves camping and previously ran a Tibetan restaurant.  

At the helm is Rasmussen, who joined the Wyss seven and a half years ago, just a few months after Carr. He leads the team in their work to ensure experiments can happen – and can play the violin as well. 

The Wyss’ Operations Team is a well-oiled machine, and its members care deeply about the safety of everyone on site. This team keeps the Institute running for the entire science community to function efficiently and without much issue.

Katie Jenkins

The team works together wonderfully. Low says, “There is a layer in all of what we do that is supporting each other’s work.”  If things are not going well, they are able to give each other feedback, accept it, and continue to grow and improve. Carr explains, “This is my second family. We work as a team to adapt to the elements of the Wyss.” 

Give someone a fish… 

When experienced researchers first meet members of the Operations Team, they often say, “We didn’t have a team like yours in my old lab to help us with tissues and keeping the incubators contamination-free.” Even if they don’t realize that from the start, once they leave to further their research as a faculty member or to found a startup, people come to realize just how much the Operations Team took care of things they did not even have to think about.     

Michael Super, Ph.D., Director of Immuno-Materials, remarks, “The help that Rob gives on microbiology safety is essential to the work we do on several DARPA, Gates Foundation, and R21 grants. The team’s work on chemical safety is especially essential to the Immuno-Materials platform.”  

This team is very instrumental in the everyday functioning of a normal working day in the different Wyss laboratory facilities. The labs just wouldn’t run as smoothly without them.

Adama Sesay

While the team appreciates the recognition of former and current community members, they hope they’re training researchers in a way that allows them to be successful in the future. Pérez explains, “We make sure they know how to find things, how to solve problems, how to discard biowaste, and how to find contamination. We’re here to help them, but we also teach them to be self-sufficient” – following the wisdom of the adage, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” 

From COVID-19 to 201 Brookline to everything in between 

An instrumental ingredient for innovation: Operations Team spotlight
The Operations Team was essential to the Wyss’ move to 201 Brookline Ave. Here, Carr shows other community members the construction site and future plans. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

In 2020, the world faced an unprecedented challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic. As many professionals began to work from home, researchers at the Wyss submitted proposals to return to the lab so they could pivot their work to focus on solutions for COVID-19. To do this, they once again needed the Operations Team’s support. “When the labs first started to reopen, there was a while where nobody could be in here except me,” Rasmussen remembers. “When people started to return, it was still difficult – we were handling materials, interacting with people, and training people all while trying to stay six feet apart.”    

The team exercised extreme caution while going through regulatory inspections and ensuring researchers had the supplies they needed. They isolated the benches and kept the environment as safe as possible for our community. Pérez recalls, “I volunteered to come in almost every day. Even though I was scared sometimes on the train, I was happy to be able to keep my mind busy. When somebody tested positive, I worked with the Facilities Team to clean their workspace.” 

Then, when vaccines became widely available and the COVID-19 threat began to recede, the team faced a new challenge: the Wyss Institute announced its upcoming move to 201 Brookline in November 2021. In the year and a half prior to the move, Rasmussen and Carr met with our researchers to learn what they needed in the new space, determined which pieces of equipment would move with us, and what additional resources would be needed. Because they work so closely with scientists, Low and Pérez contributed their own ideas to improve their workspaces at 201 Brookline. Low suggested the tissue culture lab doors have automatic sensors, so researchers didn’t risk contamination when opening them, and Perez suggested additional CO2 drops for equipment running near or in incubators to reduce the risk of leaks and improve tubing organization.   

When it came time to move, the team created the moving schedule, sent instructions about how to safely pack different materials, and provided support throughout the arduous process of moving thousands of pieces of equipment as well as the hundreds of people who work at the Institute. They also played a role in quality control at the new building, evaluating the electrical, ventilation, and utilities facilities, and quickly identifying any issues. Once everyone was settled in the new space, the team spent three weeks decommissioning, and decontaminating, the old space. 

An instrumental ingredient for innovation: Operations Team spotlight
Both Carr (2021) and Pérez (2023) have received the Ayis Antoniou Award for Excellence in Administration and Operations. Here, they’re pictured with the third winner, Amanda Graveline (2022). Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Wyss scientist Kwasi Adu-Berchie, Ph.D., says, “The work of the Operations Team has been critical after the move, especially Mike and Janeseey, as they have helped my team and me set up several critical pieces of equipment and relocate equipment to make our work more efficient.” He adds, “Maurice in particular made sure that the tissue culture work continued as seamlessly as possible.” It is safe to say the move to 201 Brookline could not have happened without their hard work.    

One group they work particularly closely with, especially during the move, is the Facilities Team. Director of Facilities Katie Jenkins says, “The Wyss’ Operations Team is a well-oiled machine, and its members care deeply about the safety of everyone on site. They are also a pleasure to work with. This team keeps the Institute running for the entire science community to function efficiently and without much issue. If something does arise, they are determined to fix it so research can continue.”   

It’s clear that people across the Institute have great respect and admiration for the members of this team – with two of them already having been awarded the Annual Ayis Antoniou Award for Excellence in Administration and Operations. Sesay remarks, “We’re lucky to have such a dedicated and committed team.”  

While the group is often caught up in the of logistics of enabling innovative, collaborative, high-impact research, they love events like the Retreat where they can take a step back and truly appreciate the work they’ve supported and the effect it has, not only on our community, but on the people whose lives are improved by our research when it goes out into the world.   

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