To Brussels and Back: Reflections on Being Executive Director of SETAC Europe
If memory serves me right, and it sometimes doesn’t as I struggle with age-related memory recall, it was Lorraine Maltby who placed the advertisement for SETAC Europe Executive Director in my hand at the 2009 Annual Meeting in Göteborg and said something to the effect of “you know and believe in SETAC, so you can do it.” Knowing SETAC as a member, and even as past president and treasurer, doesn’t come close to knowing SETAC Europe as Executive Director, as I was to discover. There is responsibility for an office and five staff, management of finances and ensuring the financial stability of the Society, the organisation of a major annual meeting and three smaller symposia, acting as dissemination partner for a European Union-funded project and implementing the strategic objectives of SETAC Europe Council.
And so it was that on 1 October 2009 I was contracted to work for SETAC Europe for two and a half days a week for a three-year period. Because I live in a village outside Cambridge in the UK, I travelled to Brussels on a regular basis via the high-speed Eurostar train from London, which travels 26 miles beneath La Manche (English Channel). This was by far the fastest and most economical way to reach the office. It took just over four hours door to door. Whilst much can be achieved via the internet and conference calling from my home office, there was a need to have a physical presence in the Brussels office at least every other week, not least to listen to the needs of staff and to develop effective working relationships.
It took me some time, initially working with the highly efficient Katrien Arijs, Science and Operational Manager, to get to grips with the systems being used and the administration of every activity from accounts management to the organisation of the 2010 SETAC Europe Annual Meeting in Seville. I was probably a bit of a disappointment to Katrien in that I could never match her extraordinarily ordered recording of data and her attention to detail. However, there were real challenges from the outset, both financial and in terms of personnel issues. Our communications manager, Maud Collee resigned in early 2010 at a critical time (when isn’t it a critical time in a small office?), and it was five months later when Daniel Hatcher joined us from the Pensacola office. Organising the Seville meeting was so demanding that it took its toll on staff members, who were completely exhausted. It was a revelation to me to witness the difficult and sometimes acrimonious negotiations we had to go through with the conference centre in terms of our expectations and their delivery, which were clearly different; a situation we vowed would never happen again. Imagine you have set up a meeting room for 20 people and then a week before the event you ask for a telephone to be installed in the room for conference calling. The participants arrive to find a telephone on the floor in an empty room!
Next, in May 2011, came the Milan meeting and further crises. Saturday before the opening, when delegate bags were to be packed, neither bags (from the supplier) nor contents (from the printer in Brussels ) had arrived at the congress centre. Late Saturday night the local organising committee located the pallets with all the materials from the office on a truck in a locked warehouse outside the city. The goods were clearly labelled “deliver no later than Saturday (date) to the MIC Milano.” Was this some kind of Mafia plot? For some unknown reason, the delegate bags had been dispatched to an address in Germany, not Italy, and could not be delivered to us in time.
Once again the local organising committee sprang into action and located 2200 paper bags from a supermarket supplier into which we could place the programme book and other stuff. “Very eco-friendly” observed several delegates. The delegate bags turned up on Wednesday afternoon, so we had to explain the inexplicable to the bag sponsors and discuss compensation issues with both suppliers and sponsors.
Stress levels rose throughout the week and staff collapsed in a heap Thursday afternoon. Because our finance manager, Rita, could not attend the meeting, Valerie Verstappen volunteered to help us out. She obviously saw this as an endurance test to become a future member of staff... and indeed she passed because, three months later, Daniel handed in his resignation and Valerie joined SETAC Europe to take on the role of Communications Coordinator. Not to be outdone, Katrien then announced that she had found a new job with the consultancy she had previously been with and would leave in September. I began to wonder what it was I had done or not done to witness this kind of exodus. At least Barbara Koelman and Veerle Vandeveire were still with us. Thus it was that a particular table at the Irish bar near the office was designated as “the table of woe,” where the Executive Committee could be seen on several occasions, heads in hands, wrestling with staffing and other issues, one of which was my replacement in 2012. You couldn’t make it up if you tried!
After several visits to the “table of woe” we came up with a new office structure whereby Barbara Koelman would become Office and Meetings Manager. We created a new post of Scientific Project Manager thus splitting Katrien’s over-demanding job. With the World Congress coming up the following May we also identified the need for an Administrative Assistant and thus welcomed Sarah Spanoghe. Valerie joined as Communications Coordinator and bolstered our activity as dissemination partner for ENNSATOX, an EU nanoparticle project. We also hired Luc Van Boxel, an accountant, on a part-time basis to manage the finances. We welcomed Roel Evens in November 2011 and he was rapidly immersed in handling the scientific programme for Berlin with its record number of abstracts.
So we were finally back on track with a full complement of staff as we approached the Berlin World Congress. The office staff worked longer hours to try to keep up with the workload necessitated by the World Congress, and our Pensacola colleagues stepped in to manage some key activities. Working alongside a newly appointed Local Organising Committee led by Aachen University, who really worked their socks off to support the office, the World Congress was an outstanding success. With over 2600 delegates it was the largest SETAC meeting ever in Europe.
Alongside these events, in my three years tenure, the office staff helped to organise four Special Science Symposia on a variety of hot topics from biocides to endocrine disruptors, plus three life cycle assessment case studies symposia, meetings in Africa and support for tree planting in Cameroon. I also had the opportunity to negotiate the selection of venues for the 2013, 2014 and 2015 annual meetings in Glasgow, Scotland; Basel, Switzerland and Nantes, France, respectively.
And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain (so sang Sinatra) and in truth, I did it my way! I can reflect on a whirlwind experience with many ups and downs, but I leave SETAC Europe knowing that it is in a healthy financial position. The office is working hard towards achieving another exciting and successful year’s activities. I have to state in public my admiration for the SETAC Europe office staff. They have been absolutely fantastic in supporting me and handling everything thrown at them. Yes, for sure I will miss the people... and the job, but I wish Bart Bosveld every success in taking the helm once again to steer the SETAC Europe ship to new horizons.
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