Tuesday, May 10, 2011

SNRAS staffer looks forward to non-retirement after 40 years in Forest Soils Lab

Lola Oliver at work in the Forest Soils Lab.

Over the past 40 years, Lola Oliver has seen many changes, but one thing has remained the same, her place of employment, UAF.

As supervisor of the Forest Soils Lab, Oliver tests soil and plant samples, processes them, prepares them for chemical or physical analysis, stores them and manages data.

“I love the work,” Oliver said. “It changes constantly. Science marches on.”

Oliver did not expect to stay in one position for four decades. “I never had a life plan,” she said. “I’ve just fallen into things.”

Born in Texas, Oliver moved around the Midwest with her family before settling in Washington. After attending Wenatchee Valley College for two years she applied at UAF and headed north, her first time to go away from home.

Oliver earned a dual degree in biology and English and went on to study mycology and biology in graduate school. She took a graduate student position in 1969 in the Forest Soils Lab, not realizing she would be working in the lab for years to come.

By 1971 Oliver had become the lab supervisor. “I didn’t even want a 9 to 5 job but it was convenient,” she said. “The job is challenging and there is always something new going on.” Co-workers proved another plus. “I like the people,” she said. “The graduate students and technicians are bright people. I’ve learned things from almost all of them.”

Keeping up with new instruments has been the most daunting part of her job, but Oliver just soldiers on. “The instruments change and the manuals are not helpful at all; you just have to teach yourself,” she said. Sometimes it took years to master an instrument, but she persevered until she did.

Oliver enjoys the hands-on aspects of the lab and the fact that she gets to do field work in the spring and fall, collecting samples from the Tanana River, Bonanza Creek Long Term Ecological Research area and the Caribou-Poker Flats area.

Her supervisor, Professor John Yarie, said, “She is a very effective lab manager from the standpoint of both personnel, lab techniques and equipment. She has done an excellent job of maintaining a record of publications that were written within the lab and maintaining files related to data sets that were collected by folks in the lab. She is also very effective in dealing with problems that arise in other sections of campus and with instrument manufactures. She is a very self sustaining and independent person.”

Research Professional Tim Quintal said Oliver has played an integral part in helping to guide the research of the lab directors and principal investigators associated with the lab. Over the years, Oliver has been involved with all aspects of that research, including helping with and writing grant proposals, administering funds, supervising technicians, performing lab work and helping with field work.

Oliver has been instrumental in building the capabilities of the lab over the years, Quintal said. In particular, she was responsible for the acquisition of a IR Mass-Spec and, most recently, a Cavity-Ringdown-Spectrometer, both of which are used for isotopic analyses, a capability that is essential for environmental research. “In addition to everything else, she immediately took on the task of being the primary operator of the Mass-Spec - a daunting undertaking in itself,” Quintal said.

“On a more personal note, she is a great co-worker,” Quintal said. “She and I get along very well and help each other out a lot. I can't imagine the Forest Soils Lab without her.”

Oliver has been working on a doctorate in geology and expects to finish by this fall or winter. She has been studying permafrost, but not with a new job in mind. “It’s just for fun,” she said. “The university has a lot to offer and I’m taking them up on it.”

When she isn’t working or studying, Oliver enjoys working on her house (which she built herself), dipnetting, walking her dog, gardening and anything to do with horses. She also loves traveling, having traversed to Tanzania, Egypt, India, Australia, Ghana and Mongolia. She particularly likes going on trips that follow solar eclipses.

As for what the future holds, Oliver has no plans to retire. Her philosophy is that people should live every day as if they might die tomorrow.

Oliver will be honored at Staff Appreciation Day May 19 at 3:15 p.m. in the Davis Concert Hall.

No comments: