Of Mice and Medicine
“My goal is to provide a facility that supports world-class cutting edge scientific research and the range of activities that enable that research.” Meet Darrell Smith, Facility Manager for the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research (MIMR), New Zealand’s leading independent biomedical research institute. Darrell has worked at the Wellington-based Institute for 19 years and is currently completing his fifth university degree (yes, you read right!).
What does your job involve?
My key roles are:
To ensure complex laboratory environments and office infrastructure are appropriately maintained and functioning correctly including the maintenance of specialist scientific equipment.
Dealing with a diverse range of stakeholders, both internal and external, as MIMR is constantly used to showcase New Zealand science to foreign officials by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).
To represent the Malaghan Institute’s interests in the design and construction of laboratory environments and other infrastructure projects. This involves looking at the big picture of both MIMR’s requirements and other external stakeholders.
Ensuring a safe and healthy environment for all staff, students, contractors and visitors to the facility which involves dealing with a complex array of hazards, such as infectious materials, chemicals, radioactive and genetically manipulated organisms as well as all the normal workplace hazards.
Many FMers describe themselves as ‘accidental’ facilities managers. How did you get into FM?
While studying psychology at varsity I supplemented my income with plastering, tiling and building which led onto investing in both residential property and light commercial property. While working on my Ph.D. in behavioural psychology I also studied animal husbandry as I wanted to be able to care for my laboratory animals. I was undertaking work experience at the medical school’s animal facility when the director of MIMR (housed in the Medical School at the time) approached me to become a technical cleaner. Over time the role grew from technical cleaner, to Laboratory Manager and finally to Facility Manager. Over that time I achieved degrees in environmental science, building science as well as numerous technical courses. Today MIMR is ‘on fire’. We celebrated our 50th anniversary, I am busy designing and engineering a nano particle lab and finishing off my fifth degree - a graduate diploma in Health and Safety.
What does ‘Facilities Management’ mean to your organisation?
At MIMR, success in research depends on the quality of the people and the facilities they have to work in. The facilities management team maintains high-end facilities and equipment to ensure that the Institute has the most suitable working environment for its employees and their activities.
What is a typical day like for you?
Monday morning starts with checking in with reception, although I get text alerts from the Building Management System and emails to my phone. The reception is the hub and will catch me up with any news, problems or absences. A walk around follows checking essential operations like liquid nitrogen levels and other critical equipment and is a good opportunity to touch base with other staff.
I have a seat on the senior management board along with the Director, GM, accountant and senior scientists. Today we had a debrief from our 50th celebration held at Parliament and the discussion of the VP experiences, which is important as we are a charity and we operate on a large portion of soft money.
Next was an induction for a new communications officer which included a lot of back story so they can understand the facility and the general activities involved and protocols for access into the different laboratory environments around the facility.
My next job was preparing chemical waste (phenol) for disposal which included double bagging and packing it with enough absorbent material in case of a spill, completing the appropriate MSDS sheet and dangerous goods form, delivering it safely into the hands of the driver, then waiting for the certificate of disposal.
Another day dusted.
What are some of the challenges of your job?
I face numerous FM challenges here at the MIMR including:
Health and safety
Constant change and demands driven by emerging science.
The one problem I think we all have is supply chain - reliable brands or manufacturers or contractors disappearing overnight, leaving the plant or equipment that you have just spent your budget on redundant as the service agent has been bought out by an opposing brand and will not supply parts.
What’s the most interesting element of your job?
Despite having every known hazard in my facility, one of the most interesting hazard are the 7500 genetically manipulated mice we house in ‘serviced apartments’. I use the analogy of serviced apartments as the mice require constant temperature, humidity and air pressures, hepa filtered air, circadian rhythm lighting, controlled access to foods, bedding and equipment as the scientific experimental results cannot be artefacts of environmental housing. As part of the ethical treatment of housing animals I often have to advocate for my little tenants which can lead to some odd conversations with contractors as concerns I have also have to be fully understood by them.
What are some of things you like most about working in FM?
I really like making things happen
Getting the best out of the facility, the resources or the people
Providing solutions for complex problems
Constantly gaining new knowledge and adding to it
What do you think are the most important skills required by an FM professional?
The best skill any person in FM can have is the skill of ‘hard work’. Possess this skill and any others can be worked upon, learned, or achieved. If hard work drives you it can set the bar for others around you; thus you get more out of people. It’s also important to develop your listening skills. The people we’re surrounded by, such as contractors, staff and stakeholders can often solve problems if we give them a chance. They may have a simpler way of doing something or know the critical thing that everyone else has overlooked but if you are unwilling to hear it, that information will be lost.
What is the proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
I have a number of accomplishments that I am proud of, my most recent being a number of technical refits with highly demanding specifications and complex integration with the existing facility. I worked hard throughout the different construction phases, initially translating the needs of the stakeholders into a language the contractors could understand and refine to a good design. Over the course of the design I became New Zealand’s leading expert in a number of fields as the technology used was more advanced than the normal works. I also heralded serviceability so the facilities would not just look good on the day but last. Over the building process I handled the shutdowns and complex situations such as ensuring the science facilities could still function and speeding up the construction with timely decisions balancing the trade-offs of time, cost and quality. Finally, acting as a cleric of works testing and checking the final built facility and chasing up critical labelling and documentation. The refits were finished perfectly and no problems have arisen. I have not had to fix, rework or adapt the labs or other supporting areas. The refits have facilitated major medical experimental work such as the current clinical trial which is extending cancer sufferers’ lives and perhaps with time will enable a major breakthrough in cancer treatment here in New Zealand.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting out in FM?
See the big picture but remember the fine detail as both extremes of perspective can help.
Be prepared. As facility manager of a specialist facility risking the extra cost of having a spare fuse, controller or plant redundancy has reduced the impact of dramatic events. The practice of spares, stock or redundancy pays dividends although it is the hardest argument to justify. However the smile of satisfaction when you restore continuity to a critical service is priceless and the cost saved can justify it.
And keep your humour as it can be the only thing you have in some situations and it can be the glue that makes it work.
When you’re not at work, what do you enjoy doing?
Artistically (as I think you should have some artistic endeavour) I am a Video Jockey. This involves setting up projected visuals in venues like the Laundry Bar and mixing pictures, live film and effects to music to create atmosphere and experiences.
To recapture my Bogan background but with the style that comes with maturity, I have a 1960 Cadillac which I drive for weddings and two 1960 motorcycles which I use to reconnect to the age when your wheels were everything.
My most important endeavour is maintaining and providing the facilities for my family’s comfort and growth; my most important circle of stakeholders.