October 25, 2022

Marilyn Vaccaro: three decades of supporting scientists

Spotlight on FMIers showcases the lives, work and passions of the institute’s researchers and support staff. We talked to Human Resources associate Marilyn Vaccaro — one of FMI's longest serving employees — about how work practices and people at the institute have changed over the past 36 years, and how she contributes to the science done at the FMI.

At the FMI, about 25 staff in Administration — from grant experts to facility managers — offer scientists support so that researchers can focus on their science. Marilyn Vaccaro started working at the FMI when personal computers were just becoming available and DNA was sequenced using meter-long radioactive gels.

You started working at the FMI on January 1, 1987.
Correct, I’ve been around a long time!

What brought you to the FMI and how has your career evolved over the years?
After graduating from my master’s in Molecular Biology in Konstanz, I was considering going back to the United States, my home country, but first checked out Basel, where my partner was working at the time. I found the FMI in the yellow pages of the telephone book and contacted them. As luck has it, there was an opening and I was offered a job as a postgraduate scientist in the research group of Jean-Pierre Jost, who was studying DNA methylation. After a few years, my partner and I started a family and relocated close to Winterthur, and I reduced my working time while our children were young. It was also then I switched to working in Human Resources (HR) [now called People & Organization (P&O) at the FMI], where I could combine my technical skills with people-oriented work. Over time, the need for more help in HR grew, so did my responsibilities and workload.

What are your main tasks in your current role?
I’m in charge of recruitment and I help with onboarding — together with the team we make sure that everything is ready from an HR perspective so that newcomers have a smooth start. Another important aspect of my job is collating information about our people and positions in various databases and reports. I also manage the FMI photo gallery – I like to get all those smiles when I take the portraits and to put a ‘Dr.’ title on a photo after a successful PhD defense.

How has your work changed over time?
When I began working here in the late 1980s, personal computers and email were just becoming available, so I spent a lot of time writing letters, which were sent by postal mail. Much less was automated. As technology advanced, the work pace has become faster. As administrative staff, we have more tools and data at hand, but more is required; for example, I now spend more time organizing and reporting our data than in the past. One recent change I very much appreciate is the development of tools for remote meetings and home office.

And how has the FMI changed over the past 35 years?
Since I've been here, the number of employees has increased by about 100 people – that’s nearly 30% – and we have twice as many technology platforms and administrative groups. When I started, we used to have plant research groups, and computational biology was in its infancy. I haven’t kept up with all the technological advances in the labs, but I do remember the meter-long, radioactively marked gels for sequencing DNA! Also, Health, Safety and Environment was less of a concern than it is today. 

You meet nearly every newcomer at the FMI. How have researchers changed since you started?
I don’t think the researchers have changed much, apart from the typical generation adaptations to the technological advances and changing times. People who come here to do research have always been clever individuals from different backgrounds and cultures, with a common passion for science.

You’re set to retire in a few months. What do you like best about your job and what will you miss the most?
I find satisfaction in supporting our researchers and staff, and as such contributing to the science done at the FMI, even if indirectly. I enjoy meeting and working with a diverse group of people, and I also like the diversity of my tasks. Besides all the people I’ve come to know and work with, I think I will miss the FMI’s young, dynamic atmosphere. Maybe I’ll also miss helping people to find solutions to problems, but I think I’ll continue to troubleshoot also outside the FMI.

Who will take on your role as an HR associate?
I’m happy and feel fortunate that we have hired Cát Duyên Phan, who has already begun taking over some of my tasks. It’s a good feeling to leave the job in the hands of such a competent and pleasant person.

Marilyn Vaccaro grew up in New Jersey, USA, where she studied food science at Rutgers University. In 1980, she came to Germany to learn a bit of German and do a biking trip, with no intention to stay. However, she decided to study Molecular Biology at the University of Konstanz, Germany, met her husband, and has since remained in Europe. She has three adult children, and her hobbies include playing the piano for a choir. After nearly 36 years at the FMI, working first as a researcher and then as an HR associate, Marilyn will retire at the end of 2022. She is looking forward to having time for exploring new things — finally learning French, for example.

FMI Marilyn taking a picture in front of "her" photo gallery.

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