Staff Member Honoured for Being a Hidden Hero

Going the extra mile earns award for OVC research technician

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Mary Ellen Clarke

Mary Ellen Clark

For Mary Ellen Clark, a typical day at work might involve working with live – and sometimes not very co-operative – horses, cats, dogs, cows and pigs, preparing tissues from bats, frogs, snakes, primates, mice, donkeys and zebras, assisting with all types of lab work, teaching and organizing grad students and discussing research plans with two professors.

Guessed her job title yet? Clark is a research technician in the Department of Pathobiology and one of last year’s two winners of the President’s Awards for Exemplary Staff Service Hidden Hero Award. The other was Barb Mitterer, administrative secretary in the Department of History.

Do you know a staff member at the University of Guelph who makes an outstanding contribution in some way? Do you know a team of employees who demonstrate excellence in their work? Here’s your chance to let them know how much they are appreciated. Nominations for this year’s President’s Awards are due May 1. For details about the categories and nomination forms, visit http://www.uoguelph.ca/president/exemplaryservice/.

Clark initially graduated from U of G with a B.Sc. in agriculture. After working for a time in Quebec, she married and returned to Guelph. Her first position was in animal science, but after 12 years there she took the position in pathobiology. That was 12 years ago.

Don’t bother asking her to describe a typical day, because they’re all different. Clark assists Profs. Jeff Caswell and Dorothee Bienzle in all aspects of their studies, as well as the grad students who are conducting research. She also has departmental tasks to complete.

It can be daunting to try to keep a horse or cow still while a tube is passed into its nostrils and down to its lungs, as she has had to do for some research. Much of her time, though, is spent in the lab and working with graduate students. “I enjoy the interaction with the students,” she says.

When Clark was nominated for the Hidden Hero Award, she says she was shocked. “When I saw the nomination letters, I couldn’t believe they were talking about me,” she says. “I had to go back to the top of the page and double check to see if it was the right Mary Ellen.”

The letters tell the story of a staff member who truly makes a difference. One former student wrote that she didn’t fully appreciate the efforts Clark made to help her, and the outstanding lab skills she taught until later. It was only when the student began working at a different university that she saw how Clark’s guidance and instruction gave her a better understanding of the research process. She ended her nomination letter with: “It occurs to me now that I did not thank Mary Ellen enough for all she taught me and for everything she helped make possible for me.”

Even students who weren’t part of Clark’s lab have benefitted from her help. One had mentioned in passing that she was planning on troubleshooting a certain procedure. Clark showed up to look for the student a few hours later to make sure the process was successful and helped the student resolve another problem as well.

Reading the letters has been heartwarming for Clark. “It is nice to see that people recognize what you do,” Clark says. “I feel like I am just doing my job, but it is good to know that doing my job well really matters.”

When she’s not setting up machines in the lab or helping students and professors sort out research, Clark enjoys hiking, dancing, yoga and oil-painting. Her two children are now in their 20s and both live in Ottawa.

For Clark, being recognized for her work has motivated her to try to do even more for the students and faculty she supports. “Being nominated for this award and reading the letters people wrote was emotional, but it also helped me to learn what mattered to people. It puts a little pressure on me to try to do better.”