Mike Alvarez, the animal care supervisor in the Veterinary Service Center, received the 2017 Marsh O’Neill award. The award is one of the few opportunities for faculty to acknowledge publicly the support of outstanding staff members who support their research activity.
November 22, 2017 - By Kathleen Sullivan
When a challenging issue arises in the Veterinary Service Center at Stanford, Miguel “Mike” Alvarez, the center’s animal care supervisor, is the “go-to person” for a constellation of researchers — faculty members, post-doctoral scholars, graduate students and staff.
“It doesn’t matter whether the issue is related to animal husbandry, animal behavior, regulatory issues or how to determine the sex of a mouse,” said Linda Cork, PhD, DVM, professor emeritus of comparative medicine. “Mike not only knows about the needs of laboratory animals, but he quickly understands the scientific goals of the investigators and how to achieve those goals most effectively.”
That was one of many accolades bestowed by Stanford professors on Alvarez, winner of the 2017 Marsh O’Neill Award for Exceptional and Enduring Support of Stanford University’s Research Enterprise. Ann Arvin, MD, vice provost and dean of research, will present the award during a 4-6 p.m. reception Nov. 27 at the Faculty Club. No invitation is required. Please email Cheryl Weissbart, firstname.lastname@example.org, if you plan to attend.
The annual award was established in honor of Marshall D. O’Neill, who worked at Stanford from 1952 to 1990, when he retired as associate director of the W.W. Hansen Laboratories. O’Neill was the first recipient of the award.
Alvarez joined the Stanford community in 1971. His first permanent position — as an animal caretaker — turned out to be the beginning of a long Stanford career devoted to the animal care and welfare. He promoted to animal care supervisor in 1987.
He is a team player who doesn’t care who gets the credit; he only wants the faculty’s research to be a success.
The Veterinary Service Center is part of the Department of Comparative Medicine, an academic department in the School of Medicine.
“In the beginning, when the center was known as the Division of Laboratory Animal Medicine, I provided whatever services they needed me to do, such as driving supplies and equipment to satellite facilities, and providing very basic husbandry, such as placing animals into clean cages and providing water and food,” he said. “Later, I became an animal care technician. I’ve taken part in many educational training programs at Stanford, and I’ve had lots of mentoring from different professors, doctors and veterinarians.”
Currently, Alvarez supervises a staff of 12 animal care technicians. He oversees the training of technicians, principal investigators and research personnel on workplace safety, standard operating procedures and internal policies.
“Among my responsibilities, I must be familiar with all animal husbandry standards and regulatory requirements, and must know the standard operating procedures for the various species of animals used in biomedical research,” Alvarez said. “I ensure that our programs and facilities comply with the Animal Welfare Act of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the standards outlined in the U.S. National Institutes of Health Guide for Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. My role requires knowledge of special handling techniques for biohazard, radioactive and infectious materials.”
Alvarez said he takes great satisfaction in every aspect of his work — in the science, the medicine, the animal husbandry and “the humanity.”
“I love people,” he said. “Any time vested in communication and showing compassion to people is well worth it.”
Alvarez said he enjoys sharing the knowledge and information he has accumulated along the way with each new wave of graduate students.
“I watch these kids do three or four years of research — sometimes more — and then I get to see the result when they invite me to their thesis presentations,” he said. “It’s really rewarding.”
Alvarez said he was honored — as well as proud and overwhelmed — to be chosen for the O’Neill Award, which he referred to as the “Hall of Fame for Research” at Stanford.
“I can’t ask for anything more when it comes to recognition by professors, superiors and mentors for all the years that I have put into Stanford and into my career,” he said. “I’m leaving my mark.”
Key role in research
“Without Mike’s outstanding professionalism and attention to the many details that are required to provide appropriate care of my mice, my research program would not have succeeded,” said Robert Malenka, MD, the Nancy Friend Pritzker Professor in Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, and deputy director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.
“I can provide many examples when Mike went above and beyond the call of duty and responded to my lab’s urgent requests in an efficient and extremely helpful manner. Importantly, he pays attention to the details and has saved my lab personnel countless hours of needless effort by letting us know when something is amiss.”
Krishna Shenoy, PhD, director of the Neural Prosthetic Systems Laboratory and co-director of the Neural Prosthetics Translations Laboratory, which conducts research aimed at providing clinically useful neural prostheses for people with paralysis, said Alvarez has had a direct positive impact on his lab’s ability to conduct successful research involving nonhuman primates.
“Mike is in the trenches every day and is an exceptionally dedicated professional, a collaborator, a leader, a mentor and a role model,” said Shenoy, a professor of electrical engineering and the Hong Seh and Vivian W. M. Lim Professor.
Faculty members also praised Alvarez for his patient and cheerful demeanor.
“I can only guess how many times Mike has explained to a new faculty member, postdoc or graduate student some of the basic issues about working with animals at Stanford, but he is unfailingly helpful, patient and willing to ‘go the extra mile’ to help faculty, staff and students,” said Cork, former chair of the Department of Comparative Medicine. “Mike’s ready smile, courtesy, and cheerful spirit brighten the day of everyone he encounters. He is a team player who doesn’t care who gets the credit; he only wants the faculty’s research to be a success.”
A strong manager
Thomas Südhof, MD, professor of molecular and cellular physiology who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, said Alvarez “knows his stuff” and finds ways to solve problems when they arise. He described Alvarez as “a fantastic manager who handles people with ease and intelligence.”
Südhof, who is also the Avram Goldstein Professor in the School of Medicine, said Alvarez goes out of his way to help researchers.
“Mike truly cares for the spirit of his job, not only the letter,” he said. “Mike really wants to help the science, to help the community make advances in our understanding of biological problems and diseases. For this alone he deserves the Marsh O’Neill Award.”
Ravi Majeti, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine, said Stanford chose Alvarez to supervise and oversee the commissioning of a specialized facility — known as a barrier facility — designed to protect research mice from common mouse pathogens, because of his strong leadership skills, his attention to detail, his ability to communicate effectively with both researchers and his team, and his vast knowledge of specialized animal care.
Majeti said Alvarez’s ideas and input were critical to determining the innovative ways to decontaminate equipment entering the barrier facility, ranging from student cell phones and computers, to mouse cages, push carts, and basic feed and supplies. He said Alvarez also determined the complicated traffic flow patterns inside the barrier necessary to keep mouse housing rooms as clean as possible, while accommodating the day-to-day need for researchers to enter and exit the facility.
Since the facility opened in 2010, Alvarez has worked closely with Majeti’s lab staff to make sure their experiments in leukemia and blood stem cells proceed smoothly and effectively.
Michael Moseley, PhD, professor of radiology, said that when he introduces himself as the chair of Stanford’s Administrative Panel on Laboratory Animal Care, he gets a smile and a happy “so, do you work with Mike?” response.
“Yes, I do work with Mike, as do thousands every day across campus and in all our Stanford facilities, from the Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey to the Comparative Medicine Pavilion on Welch Road,” Moseley said.
“I speak for everyone who ever worked in the experimental biomedical field at Stanford when I say that our expertise and reputation worldwide stands on the shoulders of unique individuals like Miguel Alvarez.”
About Stanford Medicine
Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.