Lori McVay, a 'principal investigator's best friend,' to receive 2010 Marsh O'Neill Award

McVay, associate director for finance and administration for the Program on Food Security and the Environment, is one of two winners of the 2010 Marsh O'Neill Award, which will be presented at 4 p.m. on Nov. 8 at the Faculty Club.

L.A. Cicero Lori McVay

Lori McVay is the associate director for finance and administration for the Program on Food Security and the Environment.

An energetic decision maker. The epitome of competence, diligence, reliability, loyalty and professionalism. A "no-nonsense, let's-make-research-the-top-priority" approach. An "unmistakable feel" for faculty priorities. A joy to work with.

Those were some of the many accolades for Lori McVay, winner of the 2010 Marsh O'Neill Award, which honors staff members who have made outstanding contributions to Stanford's research mission.

McVay, the associate director for finance and administration for the Program on Food Security and the Environment, a joint program of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Woods Institute for the Environment, was one of two people chosen for the award this year.

The other winner is Kathleen Thompson, director of the Research Management Group at the School of Medicine.

McVay, who arrived at Stanford in 1988, first worked as the program administrator for a newly formed affiliates group in the School of Earth Sciences, known as the Stanford Center for Reservoir Forecasting.

Today, she oversees pre-award and post-award research funding, financial planning and accounting at the Program on Food Security and the Environment (FSE). Asked what are the three things she enjoys most about her job, McVay said:

"The most important thing for me has always been to stay close to where the research happens. By that I mean holding positions that allow constant interaction with faculty and student groups. I think that's what I like most."

McVay also said she has enjoyed being involved in the "start-up" phases of new campus programs and centers, including FSE in 2006, and a decade earlier, the Center for Environmental Science and Policy, which was founded in 1998 and transitioned into the Woods Institute in 2007.

In addition, McVay said she enjoys the interdisciplinary focus of her work. At FSE, scholars from departments such as economics, political science, biology, civil and environmental engineering, earth sciences and infectious disease collaborate on a set of focused research projects, teaching activities, and direct science and policy advising. Currently, the team is engaged in 14 research projects.

"It's an honor to be recognized by the faculty that I work with and have known for many years," McVay said. "They are a big part of why the job I have is so enjoyable."

Vital to a program's growing success

Rosamond Naylor, director of the program and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and the Woods Institute, said McVay has been "absolutely vital" to the program's growing financial and substantive success.

"She sets high standards, makes tough decisions when need be and sees that the entire organization runs smoothly," Naylor, a professor of environmental Earth system science, wrote in a letter nominating McVay for the award.

"Since the Food Security and the Environment program is split physically and programmatically between two institutes – Freeman Spogli and Woods – developing an effective, integrated unit is no mean feat," Naylor wrote. "Lori runs across campus between the groups several times a day to communicate in person with faculty and other administrators. What I find especially impressive about Lori is the breadth of her technical skill set and her capacities as a tough but caring manager."

Steven Gorelick, the Cyrus Fisher Tolman Professor in the School of Earth Sciences, said McVay has "saved the day" on countless occasions when dealing with funding sources that imposed atypical requirements.

"The amazing thing about Lori is how quickly and efficiently she responds to requests and accomplishes assignments," Gorelick wrote in a letter nominating McVay for the award.

"For example, when asked to help prepare a proposal to an agency such as the National Science Foundation, she will have all the supporting documents in shape in 'no time.' She rapidly absorbs new funding agency rules – a moving target – and figures out how to meet those requirements."

Walter P. Falcon, deputy director of the Food Security and the Environment Program, said McVay is decisive, works at a high level of proficiency and knows when to forge ahead on her own and when to consult with principal investigators.

Falcon, the Helen C. Farnsworth Professor of International Agricultural Policy, Emeritus,  said McVay is especially skilled at keeping on top of program budgets that involve multiple sources, assuring that restricted funds are used before unrestricted funds, making sure that funds are expended before grants expire and keeping abreast of request for proposal and reporting deadlines.

"She is the PI's [principal investigator's] best friend, as a great many professors will attest," Falcon wrote in a letter nominating McVay for the award. "She is incredibly loyal to the organizations with which she works. She learns the substance of what they are doing, and she is continually on the lookout for potential funding sources and collaborators."

Scott D. Rozelle, the Helen C. Farnsworth Professor in International Agricultural Policy, said McVay's positive attitude is one of her distinguishing characteristics.

"Her basic rule: Make the job of the researcher as easy as possible so he/she can spend his/her time doing research or teaching," he wrote in a letter nominating McVay. "I don't know how many times I approached Lori with what I thought was a difficult task or problem and she simply said, 'Let me figure this out and I will get back to you.' And, she does. And most of the time, the message is 'no problem … all done!'"

Rozelle said that no matter how busy she is, McVay always has a smile on her face.

"She is always up," Rozelle wrote. "When there is a problem or something is extraordinarily difficult, she faces it with a joke, a funny grimace, a laugh. She is fun to work with. A story is always there to pick up your spirits."