Spring 2012 | Robert Morris
John Drwiega sees his job as administrator of the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology as a perfect fit for his skills and interests. The department, however, sees John as simply indispensible.
"Without him, I would probably resign," Dr. YiPing Chen, the department chair, says with a laugh.
Drwiega's journey to the department was a long one, but in many ways seems fated from the start. It started in 1976, when the Chicago native came to Tulane as an undergraduate.
"I fell in love with the city," Drwiega said. "I wasn’t an ideal student, the freshman engineering curriculum beat me up, but the city captivated me. I told myself, I’m going to make this city my hometown one day."
Drwiega transferred to the University of Iowa at the end of his freshman year to finish his undergraduate degree, then returned to Chicago to work first for a hospital and then for a pharmaceutical firm, pursuing work in the health sciences just as his father and two siblings had. The corporate life of the pharmaceutical firm didn't suit him, however, and while he was enrolled in the MBA program at DePaul University, he began wondering if a college campus would be a better environment for the freer management structures he envisioned.
"I thought studying organizations was pretty fascinating," Drwiega said. "I had one professor who said all problems can be referred back to management. You need to give subordinates the structure and space to learn. You need to give them the chance to learn by their mistakes."
After receiving his master's in 1992, Drwiega decided to take the plunge and relocate to New Orleans. “I didn’t want to stay in Chicago any longer and I felt the time was finally right to make the move to New Orleans”, he said. “Chicago had grown too cold and corporate for me. It was now or never. I had nothing to lose.” He got his first job with Tulane as a temp in the Cell and Molecular Biology department. He did well, and was soon introduced to Dr. Joan Bennett, a mycology professor, who hired him to help with enhancing the university’s environmental studies curriculum. When that project was complete, Bennett introduced Drwiega to Dr. Luann White in the School of Public Health, who needed his help coordinating an even larger project to deliver distance education to laid-off nuclear workers in Washington State.
Drwiega's Tulane career was suddenly interrupted when a fire at his apartment building left him homeless in 1996, forcing him to move back briefly to Chicago. He returned to New Orleans as soon as he could, working for Amoco, until he received a call "out of the blue" from Tulane's Dr. Ken Muneoka, chair in the department of Cell and Molecular Biology. An administrative secretarial position was available in the department — would John like to return?
“It was a no-brainer,” Drwiega said, “I jumped at the opportunity to come back to Tulane”. So he returned in 1999 and has now turned his good fortune into a 13-year career with the department.
In those early years, Drwiega found Muneoka to be an excellent mentor in management and human resources. “Ken was a great boss because he always kept you on your toes and made you look at things in a different light,” Drwiega said. “He would ask questions that no one else would or request pieces of information that no one else tracked. I learned the importance of having as much information at my fingertips because I never knew what Ken might request when he walked into the office in the mornings.” Drwiega went on to say, “perhaps most importantly however, Ken allowed me to express my thoughts and ideas. And yes, sometimes we disagreed.”
Drwiega's responsibilities grew as he learned and, now, "I have my hands in almost everything this department does," Drwiega said. He monitors the department's budgets, helps manage a workforce of 70 employees, tracks faculty grants and helps students with their curriculum. His position allows him to interact directly with most offices on campus. He sees it as a wonderful balance. "I still enjoy helping a student understand the curriculum requirements. And I get a big kick when I can accurately project out spending on a grant account down to a few dollars by its end date.”
Dr. Chen praised Drwiega's attention to detail and his ability to handle multiple tasks at once, seemingly effortlessly.
"He’s so organized and efficient," Chen said. "He never allows things to go to tomorrow. He always handles things immediately."
The Department of Cell and Molecular Biology has truly become the niche where Drwiega thrives, incorporating his love for New Orleans, his family's scientific inclinations, the creativity of a university setting, an institution that has been part of his life for years and the opportunity to put the management theory he studied to work. But Drwiega said the real key to his success has been his colleagues in the department. “I cannot imagine another group of people so accepting of my quirks and idiosyncrasies,” he jokes.
"No one’s a prima donna," Drwiega continues. "It’s very important for people to realize that everyone is trying to accomplish the same goal. We want to be known as the best-run academic department on campus. We strive to be a model. And if everyone agrees that this is important, then it allows you to disagree on the methods without people getting offended. That's how wonderful the people are."
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