Parker Bids NIH Farewell After 43 Years of Service
By Shannon E. Garnett
Photos by Bill Branson
Years ago, a young biologist showed up at an NINCDS laboratory intent on staying only for a short time. Forty-two years later, Levon O. Parker, NINDS minority and special concerns program officer and director of the Summer Program in the Neurological Sciences, retired with 43 years of federal service.
"Levon has been an extraordinary member of the NINDS staff for over four decades moving from the laboratory when he first joined the institute to managing what is perceived by many as the best summer student and outreach program on campus," said NINDS director Dr. Story Landis. "He is almost single-handedly responsible for the careers of many neuroscientists, neurologists and neurosurgeons who got their start here in our summer program."
Parker first came to NIH as a biologist in the neurology institute's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1961. Three years later he moved to the Laboratory of Neurophysiology, where he conducted studies of the blood-brain barrier and patients with Parkinson's disease.
During this time he was also training other young scientists in the lab, but became concerned by the lack of minorities and women involved in research. He took his concerns to then-NINDS director Dr. Edward "Ted" MacNichol, and soon after Parker was chosen not only to represent the institute on the NIH Equal Employment Opportunities Advisory Council, but also to serve as the institute's EEO counselor. He later became the first NINDS EEO officer, making the difficult decision to move from the laboratory to an administrative position.
"I said if I got the position of EEO officer I would make sure we would do everything we could to bring African Americans and other minorities into the laboratories," Parker said. "At that time there were no training courses available to take you from the lab to being an administrator. You had to wing it. I had a gray desk, no typewriter, not even a file cabinet, and no staff."
As Parker's EEO office developed and grew, so did his enthusiasm for promoting science and research particularly among minorities and students. Along the way, he helped build a nationwide network of minorities, individuals with disabilities and women involved in brain and nervous system research, and to establish and sustain relationships between the institute and such organizations as the Society for the Advancement of Chicano and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
Parker also helped to stimulate interest in NIH's clinical and basic research training opportunities by encouraging students to pursue careers in science and medicine particularly neuroscience and by imparting the excitement and challenges of biomedical research, and touting the rewards of such careers. His success is particularly evident in his work with the NINDS Summer Program in the Neurological Sciences a program he founded some 18 years ago.
According to Parker, before the NINDS summer program, the only summer program available on campus was simply a "jobs" program, not a research training program. "I felt we could do better than that," Parker said. So he took his idea to a few scientists in the NINDS Intramural Division and began a program to bring students and minorities into the laboratories not only providing them with hands-on research experience and training them, but also mentoring them into research careers.
Some of NINDS's senior investigators fondly remember the "Parker Patrol," a term they adopted to describe how, during the early years of the program, Parker would patrol the laboratories in Bldgs. 10 and 36, looking for those willing to train and mentor students. Several of Parker's students have trained, or are now training, for careers in biomedical research or academic medicine at prestigious academic institutions.
"The positive experience that I had that summer as my first research experience stimulated me to consider a career in medical science that has involved M.D., Ph.D., and academic subspecialty training," said Dr. Eric Sibley, assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine and former summer student who trained in the NINDS Laboratory of Molecular Biology. "The dedication, professionalism and human touch that Mr. Parker has provided in his various offices is greatly appreciated and will be greatly missed by me and the medical science community."
The program which has trained more than 3,000 students since its inception has since become a model for other NIH programs. In addition, Parker has been instrumental in developing many other training opportunities including the Ernest Everett Just and the Collaborative Neurological Sciences Awards which were developed to encourage minorities in neurological research and the NIH Academy, which fosters research on elimination of health disparities.
"The future of biomedical research is in our young people," said Parker. "If you want to build the next pool of scientists, you have to get them while they are young and expose them to the excitement of research. It's our responsibility to bring them in, train and mentor them, and provide them with resources to get into top-notch programs and academic institutions."
He is particularly proud of having helped to create the Minority Faculty-Student Partnership Traineeships in Biotechnology Program a week-long lecture and laboratory course introducing topics in biotechnology with special emphasis on recombinant DNA technology. In 11 years, students from more than 80 minority institutions have participated in the program, which is cosponsored by NINDS and the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences, Inc.
"The program provides a unique learning situation for both faculty and students. They gain valuable knowledge and experience concerning the latest biotechnology techniques," said Parker. "A lot of minority schools don't have the resources for this kind of technology."
Born in Craddockville a small town on the Eastern Shore of Virginia Parker graduated from Mary N. Smith High School, and was the first in his family to go to college. He earned his B.S. degree in biology and chemistry from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and is a veteran of the U.S. Army and Air Force Reserves.
Through the years, he has received many prestigious awards and honors such as the NIH Director's Award, in 1999 and 2001, the 2002 Minority Access National Mentor Role Model Award, the 2003 SACNAS Distinguished Professional Award, and most recently, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program's Mentor of the Year Award from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Recently, nearly 200 friends, family, and past and present colleagues honored Parker at a reception in Wilson Hall. They presented him with a citation from Anne Arundel County for his work at NIH, a certificate deeming him "Dean of OEO," a poster and a plaque. In addition to the many verbal tributes he received, perhaps the greatest honor was the announcement of NINDS's new Levon O. Parker Scholarship Fund, which consists of monetary gifts from numerous well-wishers, and is intended to continue Parker's legacy of promoting students in neuroscience.
Although Parker has retired, his plans still include young people. He will enjoy spending time with his grandson (who will be joined by a sibling in June). Parker will also continue to mentor UMBC students and, occasionally, serve as an advisor to NINDS on student- and outreach-related projects.
Concluded Parker, "When you get to be my age it's nice to look back and to be able to say 'I made a difference. I made a contribution. I did something.' I feel like it was my second home here. It's a place that I will always cherish and remember."Creative Influence Begins New Phase
Artist Al Laoang Retires After 34 Years at NIH
By Carla Garnett
The Clinical Center has been home to juried art galleries only since the late 1980s, but you've always been able to stroll down any of its major corridors and find museum-quality images of myriad topics, from the pedestrian traffic depicted in "Arthritis and Osteoporosis" (1997) to the windblown trees of "Imagine God" (1989) to the carousel that is "Mood Disorders" (1984). That's because the lion's share of art medical illustrations, posters publicizing lectures and events, graphics for slides is conceived by a small, but highly creative talent trust composed almost entirely of NIH'ers. That trust absorbed a huge loss on Jan. 2, when longtime NIH artist Al Laoang retired after 34 years.
"We have such a grand time working at NIH," said Linda Brown, Laoang's former supervisor who he described as part art director/part coach/part inspiration during what he termed the "glory days" of his time here. "It's impossible to believe this much time has flown past. Al's more like a family member than a coworker. I remember when we were both skinny, young and dark-haired. Al got married, had a family, bought a house, sent children to school now we're both gray and lots smarter!"
Although he acknowledged his formal art training at Chicago's American Academy of Art, the Philadelphia College of Art (where he earned a bachelor's degree in fine art and also met and married his wife, Dorothy, who is also an artist) and George Washington University (where he received a master's in fine arts) and several of his many plaudits PRINT's regional design honors in 1989 and 1996 for posters promoting "Black History" and "Taste of Asia"; awards of merit in 1995 and 1996 for "NIH Disability Employment: Awareness and Action" from the Illustrator's Club and "Cochlear Implants" from the Art Director's Club of Metropolitan Washington, D.C.; an NIH Merit Award in 1991; and consecutive ORS Outstanding Performance Awards 1991-1993 Laoang constantly diverts praise from himself and attributes his success instead to the environment where he worked.
He recalled a particularly close-knit group of artists, overseen by Brown, that included Richard Barnes (now the senior web designer at CIT), Karen Cook (now a career counseling coordinator in ORS's Center for Career Resources), Margaret Georgiann (now owner of Whim Whams Illustration Studio) and Betty Hebb (now retired).
"We were like a family," Laoang said. "We fed off each other. We competed with each other. We had such a love and appreciation for each other's work. I think that period the late '80s, early '90s was our 'Camelot.'"
Brown, an artist herself who began at NIH 4 years before Laoang and still works in Medical Arts, said it was "a time when you found a place where you could practice your craft, and you stuck with it. It was a big luxury for me to have someone like Al working for me. I really can't believe he's leaving I'm pretending that he's just cleaning out his area."
Other alumni of the period agreed, acknowledging that in addition to his art, Laoang's personality makes him unique.
"Al is truly a gifted and versatile artist," remarked Cook, warmly. "Of course with creativity comes quirkiness. Al and his friend of over 30 years, Ralph Isenburg, would meet each other religiously at 3 p.m. every day for coffee in the cafeteria. You could set your watch by Al. Al would call Ralph just before 3 every day and ask him, 'Going up a tree?' [They] always had constant word plays going on between each other; this is the way they communicated together. Very strange."
Added Georgiann, "Al occupies a space somewhere between Michelangelo and Gene Kelly in my heart. He was always the best painter and draftsman among us, but his sweet soft-shoe moves in the aisle between our office spaces are some of my favorite moments with Al."
"Al is a great music lover and a graceful dancer," Cook confirmed. "He always seems to have a rhythm going in his head. Sometimes I could hear his feet dancing while he was working at the drawing board in his cubicle (often without any music playing!). And after the coffee break, Al often had Broadway tunes blasting from his boom box. In addition, he is a man with a very kind and generous heart...I love Al. I will miss him!"
Barnes also recalled cubicle life around Laoang. "Soon after I started working at NIH," he said, "I discovered Al's unique solution to beat the traffic. One morning I arrived early at the office, switched on the lights and sat down to work alone. After a little while I thought I heard a rustling sound. Medical Arts was located in the Clinical Center sub-basement in the area originally intended for library stacks a perfect hideout for the fabled fugitive lab mice. But then I was startled by the beep-beep of a watch alarm. That's when Al methodically arose from the floor in his cubicle, rolled up his mat and headed out for coffee before beginning the work day. In those days, if you arrived at 0-dark-thirty, you could actually get a parking space in the CC garage. I even tried Al's daily ritual for a few weeks, but it was just too early for me!"
NCI chief medical photographer Isenburg, a 58-year veteran NIH'er who vows to reach the 60-year mark here, remembered meeting Laoang decades ago deep in the heart of Bldg. 10.
"We struck up a friendship as two of the very few people that arrive here at a quarter to 5 every morning," he said, chuckling. "Over the years, Al has always joked with me that he would outlast me, that I would retire before he would. Well, I win. He's retiring before I am. He always said they'd need a wheelchair to wheel me out of here. Well, I'm arranging to pick up a little surprise for him at his retirement party."
In addition to his own award-winning career in the arts, Laoang admitted he is equally proud of his influence on a new generation of talent particularly his two daughters: Jennifer Camille, a painter in New York, and Bette Cassatt, a local actor. He also gave early painting lessons to Netherlands portrait artist Scott Bartner, son of former NIH medical illustrator Howard.
Although he won't be physically located on campus, Laoang is not deserting his legion of fans. "NIH still needs that talent close by," explained Brown, who said Laoang has promised to continue producing work on commission for NIH'ers "who have become addicted to his style." Essentially, Laoang's retirement will give him the opportunity and time to launch a studio business and pursue other projects that have been on the back burner for years. "I just thought that it was time to go out and do something that I've always wanted to do," he concluded.
To view examples of some of the artwork created over the years by Laoang and his colleagues, visit http://history.cit.nih.gov/exhibits/galleries/posters/text-index.html.
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