Operating Large Research Infrastructure Requires a Wide Variety of Skilled Professionals

In its nearly 100-year history, Battelle has gained a strong reputation for its ability to manage and operate complex research programs. From helping the United States enter the nuclear age to playing a vital role in its complex of national laboratories, Battelle has shown its mettle time and again.

The work of scientists, engineers and researchers is core to the mission of advancing science, but to truly enable excellence the teams supporting them must be outstanding as well. Verna Wagner, Battelle’s Manager of the Project Controls team for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and the Arctic Research Support and Logistics Services (ARSLS), is a fine example of just such a professional.

Both NEON and ARSLS are complex research organizations that Battelle operates for the National Science Foundation (NSF). They comprise hundreds of staff members working in highly challenging environments so we can all better understand our world with the advantage of rigorously collected scientific data. But those amazing people who have dedicated their lives to making the world a better place through science need support, and Wagner is one of the people who make sure that happens seamlessly.

A 20-year employee of Battelle, Wagner has over 30 years of project controls experience. She started her career in her home state of Maryland, where she was attending Harford Community College in pursuit of a teaching degree. Working for another government contractor that entailed a long commute to the Baltimore/ Washington area, Wagner took a conference coordinator position with Battelle on February 14, 2000. “It felt like home, my favorite Valentine gift to this day.”

After a short stint away from Battelle, she returned when the project controls team was formed. “That’s my strong suit,” she said. “I just love Battelle. I loved it at the beginning and I was sad when I left. I wanted to get back.” 

She got her first experience with large-scale projects when she joined the Battelle team supporting the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, where she worked on the effort to obtain an earned value validation. She moved from Maryland to Colorado for that job, helping support the team while they worked in tandem with others to help safely destroy the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons in storage at the U.S. Army Pueblo Chemical Depot.

Then in 2016, another big mission came calling. The NSF had begun work on its continental-scale observatory network designed to collect long-term ecological data for 30 years to better understand how ecosystems are changing using 81 sites around North America. But the original managing organization had run into budget and schedule troubles in the construction of the Observatory.

Wagner joined the team in Colorado. “We implemented a team and transferred the earned value best practices and procedures into the NEON program,” she said. “It was a lot of work. We had to complete 80 percent of it on schedule with not much remaining funding. Battelle did an excellent job of finishing the observatory. We knew what we had to do and assessed we could do it for the price, and we did. We were within budget at the very end, and on time.”

Wagner knew that extensive testing would need to be accomplished to make sure the observatory could begin collecting data and was confident in the outcome. “I’m not technical, I’m the person minding the money,” she said. “We did it. Battelle is great at what it does. We wouldn’t have said we could get it done if we couldn’t. It was a lot of seven-days-a-week work without much sleep. But it was very rewarding. It was a team effort, with close collaboration, and we achieved a challenging goal with Battelle’s program management oversight implementing our best practices and procedures.” 

When Battelle won the NSF’s Arctic program a few years later, Wagner expanded her job to contribute to both that team and NEON. Even though she’s never been to the Arctic, her work ensures the success of the science being conducted there. “We implemented best program management practices and earned value industry standard procedures,” she said. “Battelle lets you grow wherever you want to go. They are wonderful to trust me, and we have such a great team.”

She said working with NSF is both challenging and rewarding. “The National Science Foundation, compared to other federal agencies, has different requirements and many of the NSF programs are aligned with the things that Battelle does. It’s great work. I make sure Battelle is meeting all the project control requirements on these programs. We have to give them the best, most accurate status of where we are in terms of budget and time. It’s like getting a report card each month.”

Wagner brings attention to detail, superior communication skills and the ability to keep an open mind when listening to people. “I try to understand where people are coming from when they ask me to do something,” she said. “It helps me find the right answer.”

Photo: Neon technicians in the boulder tower
May 18, 2023
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