SFU Staff Achievement Award winner keeps Faculty of Science running smoothly through pandemic

July 24, 2021
Photo credit: Sienna Lemky

Last spring, Ruth Appanah was tasked with shutting down almost all Faculty of Science research, teaching and administrative space while ensuring that a handful of critical labs could still operate under strict provincial and university guidelines. She’s now tasked with ensuring those facilities are up and running in time for a full opening in September. It is no wonder that she has been awarded an SFU Staff Achievement Award in the category of Work Performance.

Appanah is the director, facilities and operations in the Faculty of Science where a good part of her job involves overseeing the safe operation of more than 280 labs (including greenhouses, a hypo/hyperbaric chamber, tissue culture, microscopy and technical facilities), 270 teaching spaces and common areas in SFU’s second largest faculty.

Other responsibilities include capital improvements, space renovations, safety management and compliance, as well as overseeing the information technology, who also received a Staff Achievement Award this year, science stores receiving and the science technical center groups.

Even without a months-long world-wide pandemic, the breadth of Appanah’s responsibilities is staggering.

This past year alone, she has dealt with COVID-19 and mitigated situations that may have had significant impact on research operations and facilities.

Nominator and Dean of Science Paul Kench says that for each of these events Appanah leads the faculty response that involves communication to all internal and external stakeholders, damage assessment, oversight of remediation, and co-ordination of insurance claims and repair.

“Despite the considerable interruptions such events can have on research operations, Ruth consistently ensures effective and timely recovery to minimize disruption,” he says.

Kench adds that Appanah has been one of the very few members of the faculty who has reported to work every day in person since the beginning of the pandemic because of the core services she oversees on campus.

Most of her 22 staff have jobs that require an in-person presence — lab materials need to be shipped and received and IT technicians need access to equipment and servers. Accordingly, Appanah devised a plan to allow her staff to rotate between home and campus while ensuring service levels were met. She says, “I have been on campus most days since we shut down in March, 2020 – if my staff have to be here, then so should I.”

It is this work ethic, combined with a deep knowledge of science, safety protocols and a willingness to find solutions that makes her a welcome addition to working groups within and outside the faculty.

Melinda Skura, senior director of SFU environmental health and safety says, “Ruth is firm but fair and …. able to manage challenging people remarkably well. She is always willing and happy to help out despite her demanding role and workload. Ruth brings an important perspective to every committee she belongs to and she is well respected amongst her peers. She adds, “She is a trusted and reliable colleague who is also personable and enjoyable to work with.”

Luckily, Appanah’s favourite part of her job is the opportunity to meet new people across the university and work collaboratively on common goals. She is grateful to work with excellent staff that help support operations, support services and safety in Science. 

Throughout the pandemic, she has shared her time and expertise with other SFU units and has led the university in much of the decision-making around research protocols. Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies Michael Silverman says, “It is not an overstatement to say that Ruth’s prodigious efforts, prudent decisions, and calm leadership paved the way for hundreds of SFU researchers to safely return to campus.”

Appanah says that she is just doing her job and she is grateful to be recognized, however, she feels the award should be shared with her staff and supervisor. “As with many things, it takes a team to make things happen as well as a supportive leader to empower that team with the authority to do so. Consequently, all the operations and technical support staff, and the Dean, really contributed to this award.”