Biology professors rely on Lisa Pereira to be their administrative backbone

L.A. Cicero Lisa Pereira

Pereira attributes her ever-cheery personality to the positive and passionate people who surround her.

Lisa Pereira's job may seem like an experiment in extremes. One day she's rushing to send off a crucial research grant application that was handed to her minutes before deadline. The next, she's sending a message online to someone halfway across the globe—although the recipient is two days away from a computer.

Welcome to the world of Professor Robert Sapolsky's administrative assistant. In addition to a 20-person laboratory at Stanford, the internationally renowned scholar of neurological sciences maintains a field research site in Kenya where he studies the behavior of baboons in the wild. As a result, Pereira said, some of her day-to-day duties couldn't be more divergent.

One day she is shopping online for highly specialized microscopes—priced between $80,000 and $90,000—for Sapolsky's lab in the Gilbert Biological Sciences Building. The next, she's at the supermarket picking up paddleball toys that her boss can take with him to Africa and give to children in the village when he conducts field research.

"He stays out in little villages with them there, and they love him. He's such a wonderful guy," said Pereira, who once also procured a blowgun for Sapolsky to use in his primate research. "It's a very tribal-like atmosphere down there."

Pereira also provides administrative support for assistant professors of biological sciences Guowei Fang and Bill Burkholder. And at least for the latter, there was one occasion several years ago when "support" meant not only quick thinking, but quick driving.

It was close to 5 p.m. and Burkholder handed Pereira a grant application that had to be mailed that day. By the time Pereira finished making copies and collating everything, they missed the last FedEx drop time on campus. So she looked up directions for the downtown San Jose location, and with Burkholder in the passenger's seat of her car, they took off.

It turned out that the drop was one of those back-of-the-store counters, and it wasn't immediately obvious where to go. "We happened to be driving down the street, and there was a FedEx driver in front of me," said Pereira, who recalled telling herself at the time: "You know what? I'm just going to pull up behind him and ask."

"I think we made it with one minute to spare," said Pereira, who, as an Amy Blue honoree, will receive a $3,000 cash prize and an "A" parking permit good for the next academic year. Pereira first came to Stanford as a temp to fill a job that was supposed to last just a few days. That was about seven years ago.

"Lisa's performance rises far above what I would expect or require of an employee in her position," Burkholder said. "She makes extraordinary contributions, motivated by her own high standards, her clear love of people and her drive to contribute to the success of our research group."

Pereira has been doing very much the same things she has since she started: general oversight of finances, lab management and many other miscellaneous, but notably technical things—which Sapolsky points out is no small task for someone with no formal background in science.

In the last year alone, Sapolsky said Pereira has noticed a problem with a pH meter that was throwing off accuracy, fixed a minus-80 degree freezer when a senior researcher in the lab gave up on it and advised Sapolsky that someone in his lab was using way too much in supplies for the research at hand.

"I have been here at Stanford for 19 years and, thanks to various bits of chaos in the department, have had something like 10 different secretaries or administrative assistants," Sapolsky said. "Lisa Pereira is unmatched by anyone I've worked with in all my years at Stanford."

Pereira said her energy and enthusiasm at work simply reflects the passion and positive attitude of those around her. And it seems in assisting one of the foremost authorities on the biological effects of stress that Pereira is a perfect match.

"I just have that attitude, I think, where it's not worth stressing over the little things," Pereira said. "I'm sure if I wasn't as lucky and didn't work with such wonderful people that I wouldn't be so happy."