Do you ever stop and think about what “progress” would look like? When asked to write this article, we decided that in research, progress looks a lot like a train. The PI determines what track is used, but it takes many people and a lot of transactions to make the train move down that track. Transactions? Why transactions? Because every minute of our day involves transactions of some sort. Transactions come in many types of packages: payroll, travel, pre-award and post-award processes, and of course, purchasing. Some transactions are carried on the train and some make it go. Each of us deals with some combination of these varied transactions all the time. While we will discuss our individual dealings with transactions, we would like to pinpoint one very important transaction: communication. We spend time each day comparing notes and communicating about what is going on. If we don’t have effective communication with those we work with, our efficient train of transactions would come to a grinding halt. Please keep in mind as you review our processes that communication is what keeps our departmental train of research and education on track.
The first car on our research train is Max and the transaction processes in which he specializes.
My job primarily focuses on two areas: purchasing supplies and travel. Every communication is a transaction of the upmost importance. The perspective I give is from the need to manage a large volume of transactions on an ongoing basis.
Doing the majority of the supply purchases for our department (over 20 labs) means processing (ordering, logging and verifying) between 120 and 200 transactions each month. The standard for purchase requests that come into our office is that they are placed within one working day. It is very important to maintain a high level of organization to stay on top of that volume.
My purchasing file drawer is split into 4 sections:
- Order Confirmations and Invoices
- Packing Slips
- Ready to Reconcile
- Reconciled & Ready to File
I pass my transactions on to others, as I rarely touch packages when they come into the department. It is important that my transactions are understandable for those checking things in. Each order’s shipping address contains my initials and the last name of the PI. This communication makes it easy to determine where the package goes after it comes in, and it assures that I receive the packing slip. It is important to have communication from the labs if something is slow in arriving. Then I can provide lab personnel with the order confirmation so that we can follow up with the vendor. I also keep track of vendors that we have problems with so I can advise lab personnel on who is reliable.
Another transaction I deal with is travel, which starts with making sure we have all the compliance paperwork on file. This prevents issues with conflict of interest and difficulties during the reimbursement process. In order to be reimbursed, the traveler needs to complete a form to communicate the details of their trip. Our researchers have a lot going on so keeping “busy work” to a minimum is important. The form also assists in determining what documentation is needed to expedite their reimbursement and cuts down on mistakes and extraneous transactions.
Next comes Laura’s car, because every train needs both hardware and people!
My primary responsibilities are procurement, payroll, and facilities. The vast majority of procurement from my desk involves research equipment and any purchase request above the direct buy limit. For our purposes, equipment is defined as durable goods that have a useful life of more than a year. Equipment also includes items that are added to an existing piece of equipment. These should be vital to or improve the usefulness of that equipment, i.e., adding a light source to a microscope system. We evaluate procurement requests by two methods: 1) does the total cost exceed the direct buy limit and/or 2) can the item be defined as equipment? If either qualification is met, the request is forwarded to me to begin the procurement process through our central Purchasing Services office. My job is to communicate through the process with our researchers and evaluate the requests from the end users. When a request comes in, I need to figure out how to make it happen while still adhering to state regulations. I evaluate the request for tax exemption status. I determine if we can justify purchasing it through the specific vendor requested or if a bidding process is necessary. In Integrative Physiology & Neuroscience, almost all our equipment orders meet the qualifications of the State of Washington Machinery and Equipment (M&E) Tax Exemption. By carefully evaluating each request, we can usually justify the purchases through the vendor requested. This means we only use a bidding process once or twice a year. The paperwork is sent to Purchasing Services and they do the rest!
Payroll is a vital component of my duties. It requires frequent communication with my supervisor, who communicates with the faculty regarding the research staffing needs and the available funding to fill those needs. Without the personnel to research and educate, our train goes nowhere. Speaking of our train, it also needs to be kept in good repair to move forward with the research goals of the department. My supervisor and I work together closely on facility issues. Whether it is arranging space or repairs, we make sure the researchers have the framework they need to succeed.
The other important part of our train is Ty. He can be either the Coal Car or the Caboose depending on the day, but I will let him tell you about that.
My job involves communicating both with our researchers and with administrative departments on campus. A failure to communicate what is needed and expected with either party can cause serious delays or derail the train altogether. Here are a few of the transactions I am part of each month on the pre-award side: preparing proposal budgets to show researchers how far the money is likely to go, modifying budgets according to the proposal budget justification, and occasionally preparing financial forecasts to see if a PI can hire a postdoc/lab technician. The post-award side can range from following up on grant allocations, confirming that F&A is being charged correctly, and delivering budget statements to the researchers to help them review expenditures. Other transactions of note include being the point of contact for invoices that need to be paid, helping determine which lab a package belongs to, and entering time cards in our payroll system for temporary employees. Details, details, details. The nuts and bolts of preparing proposal budgets, paying invoices, following up on delinquent invoices (why didn’t we receive it?), reconciling expenditures, etc., require me to focus on details. The reasons for the details are vital: research and education. My job removes some of the day–to-day burden from the researchers and instructors. Ideally, this gives faculty more time to focus their talent, training, and experience on their research and students.
Every transaction helps move the train toward its goal. This allows our researchers to focus on their strengths and, ultimately, promote the greater good. We recognize that each transaction plays a part in creating a climate where research, education, and public service can prosper. We work hard to treat our colleagues with dignity and respect, knowing we are all part of a significant undertaking. We do our best with each transaction and never know what we may be helping to bring to fruition. In other words, “We don’t know where this track leads, but riding the train is a hoot!”
Max Benson, B.A., Fiscal Specialist in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience at Washington State University, is a graduate of the University of Idaho. Max has over 18 years of sales and banking experience. He started at WSU in the Office of Grants and Research Development before transferring to his current position. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Laura E. Kinslow, B.A., Fiscal Specialist at Washington State University in Pullman, is a graduate of Washington State University’s College of Business. Laura’s responsibilities at WSU include laboratory equipment procurement, payroll and assisting with facility coordination. She started at WSU in the College of Veterinary Medicine as a student employee while completing her degree. She has since been on staff in IPN for 7 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ty Simanson, B.S., Fiscal Analyst in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience at Washington State University, is a graduate of the University of Idaho. Ty’s responsibilities include pre- award budget preparation and post-award financial management. He has over 13 years of mortgage banking experience. He has been at WSU 6 years and with IPN for the last three. He can be reached at email@example.com.