Berkeley Lab

3Q4: Martha Condon

Martha Condon portrait and award citation

Excellence recognized

The end of 2020 is also end of an era in ATAP as one of the hidden figures who support our scientific achievements, Senior Division Administrator Martha Condon, retires from a 41-year career spent principally in ATAP and its predecessor, the Accelerator and Fusion Research Division.

Martha has earned a reputation as the go-to person for the most difficult challenges, running the gamut from conference planning to property management, preparation of Building 71 for the BELLA Laser, facilitating complicated subcontracts with multiple institutions and businesses, assisting with the proposal process, startup of new research programs and projects, and supervising/mentoring of administrative staff.

Her years of service and dedication were recognized in 2019 with the Laboratory Director’s Award for Exceptional Service Achievement. As her remarkable career comes to an end, the self-effacing superstar of administrative support reluctantly agreed to three questions…

As a manager and central figure of ATAP’s administrative team, you are the pivot point in a lot of other people’s activities. How are you helping them adapt to the new normal of COVID times?

We’ve had to develop a coping mindset. When we all talk, we make time to hear what others are dealing with and what their experiences are so we don’t feel like we’re the only ones going through it.

On Zoom, you just have to expect that interruptions are part of the new normal. I’m in a room where I can just close everything off, but that isn’t everybody’s situation. Getting to know people’s kids and dogs is just part of our new normal, and you work with it.

Technical aspects matter too. Internet speeds vary, and with people in so many places, there’s a greater chance that somebody in a meeting might have some technical problem. There are certain things you have to get around. We just have to be kind to each other and practice acceptance—and build in extra time and be flexible in working around problems. Fortunately, on the admin team we’ve always been there for each other.

You’ve had over 40 years of service to the Lab. What are your thoughts on the changes you’ve seen?

One of the biggest changes has been technology. To me it’s making our jobs easier. Things are getting smaller, but better and faster. When I started out, we were using typewriters, leaving space for equations. It took forever! Then the Wang, which was an early dedicated word processing terminal, came along, and was that a lifesaver. When full-fledged personal computers came along, it was just a no-brainer that things were getting better and better.

Back in the day, scientists would just move up to leadership and management. There has been a big shift to training at all levels, including on how to manage people, and I think that made a big difference.

A work culture of mutual trust and respect and telling the truth is something I’ve seen built up through the years. In the admin field, there’s been a push to help people learn what their strengths are and develop their skills. There’s always been an opportunity to move up, and people guiding me to try something new— seeing your abilities and pushing you to go for it. I’ve really appreciated that throughout my career.

I think the next frontier is for women scientists. The push for equity and inclusiveness continues, and I hope it gives room for women scientists to see their dreams come true.

What advice would you give to other people in roles like yours?

Somebody once called me “cool, calm and collected.” It doesn’t always feel like that inside, but I’m glad that’s the impression I give.

I’ve always been able to say, “I’m going to step away from this and come back when emotions aren’t so high”. I can’t tell you how many times when we come back we have a different perspective on both my end and the other person’s. It’s productive at that point.

Be open to new ideas. Leave room for creativity and see what people can come up with. Recognize them and reward their good work; that’s where you get loyalty and retention, when people are valued. In management, be a role model. Do what you say you’re going to do.

On the few occasions when we see behavior that could be improved, other people should be an upstander—step in to say something. If enough people do the right thing, they can change others. If it’s not just one person saying it, but several, that’s especially powerful.

It’s been a good run, and I’ve enjoyed it. People at the Lab are so brilliant, and being there to support them has been a pleasure.