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NIH Record Retirees

ORS Executive Officer Topalian Says Farewell

By Carla Garnett

Intramural, extramural, central services — Joan Topalian has worked them all over the course of her 34-year career at NIH. Now, she says it's time to bid farewell to the only workplace she has ever known. Topalian retired on Apr. 1 as executive officer of NIH's Office of Research Services.

"Leaving NIH is bittersweet," she admitted. "I will certainly miss all the wonderful people, but I will be glad not to have to wake up every morning at 5:15. The good thing is that I won't be moving out of town, so I can still get together with old friends and occasionally stop by the campus."

Joan Topalian

Looking back, Topalian said the administrative management that became her career probably seems like a great departure from her early career goals. A 1965 graduate in fine arts and art history from American University, she and a friend had just received their sheepskins when — instead of seeking jobs like most of their classmates— they borrowed money and set off on an 8-week tour of Europe to see firsthand the masterpieces they'd been studying in college.

"People thought we were out of our minds for doing that," she recalled with a grin, "but it was such fun. What an opportunity! It was an incredible experience."

When she returned from her trip, her first job interview was in downtown Washington, D.C., near Dupont Circle with a "new publication just starting up," she recounted. "They wanted me to do layout design and copy paste-up, which was more commercial art than fine art. It really wasn't what I was looking for, and I thought 'How long is this little magazine going to be around?'" Turns out, the little startup publication was Washingtonian magazine. Who would've thought? she laughed, ruefully.

Since then, Topalian has seized every opportunity to learn something new. During her first interview at NIH, at a grants office, she was told she had all the skills and qualifications they were looking for, "but," she was asked, "how do I know that once I hire you, you won't run off and get married and have children," leaving the position in the lurch?

"Wasn't that just terrible?" she said, with good humor. "But that was typical of the times back then." She was eventually hired as a grade 3 clerk-typist in the neurology institute, where she stayed for 8 years before being accepted into the Management Intern Program. "I'm so grateful for the MI program, which just turned my world around," she said. Her first rotation assignment was at the Parklawn Bldg. with the mental health institute, just before it split with NIH to form one-third of ADAMHA.

By 1976, she had learned several aspects of grants administration and management. She applied for a job at NCI in the Landow Bldg. She was hired by Damian Crane as an AO in the Chemical Carcinogenesis Program at NCI, where she stayed for 12 years, rising to the level of deputy division administrative officer.

"As Joan seemed quite comfortable with numbers," recalled Crane, "I quickly designated her as the AO in charge of the program's budget. The program was quite large and the budget, which had both intramural and research contract components, was complex. Chemical carcinogens, particularly those related to occupational or environmental cancers, were very much in the news. There were frequent requests for budget data related to our program's efforts in these areas. As the budget contact, Joan was often asked for financial data, many times on very short notice. On one especially hectic day, I was being pressured for a response that Joan was preparing. Somewhat frustrated, Joan told me that she 'was doing the best she knew how.' Surprised by her statement, I asked where that came from. She told me she once worked for a supervisor who told her whenever she felt unreasonably pressured for a response that only she could provide, she should just tell them she 'was doing the best she knew how.' [Over the years], I have remained friendly with Joan. I remember during her early days with ORS and its seemingly endless reorganizations when she seemed sometimes overwhelmed. I would just tell her to do 'the best she knew how.' It was always good for a laugh."

By 1989, Topalian had been appointed ORS's first executive officer, following several months she'd spent on a detail to the office's Division of Engineering Services. In her new capacity, her first task was to hire an entire staff from scratch — in 6 months. She's stayed at ORS for the last 10 years.

"I have worked with Joan for almost 20 years," said Dinah Huffer, who was just out of the Stay-in-School Program in 1977 when Topalian hired her at NCI. In 1989, her former boss hired her again — this time as ORS AO. "She was always very supportive of me and served as a mentor for furthering my career. She is not only a colleague, but a very good friend. As she is moving into a new chapter of her life, I wish her a happy and healthy retirement."

"The people in ORS are very dedicated," Topalian said, pointing out that most NIH'ers don't realize ORS is the third largest NIH organization. "They have a genuine interest in what they do. I'll really miss working with them. Thinking about leaving, I'm beginning to feel a little emotional. But I want to retire while I'm fairly young and in good health."

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