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Jessica Manning, MCB Executive Director, Recognized as a Harvard Hero

Jessica Manning, MCB Executive Director, Recognized as a Harvard Hero

With great enthusiasm, members of MCB faculty and staff nominated Jessica Manning, MCB Executive Director, for this year’s  Harvard Hero Program to recognize her leadership and management within MCB and across Harvard.  Manning will accept the award, an honor celebrating the accomplishments of Harvard staff whose work supports the mission of Harvard at the highest levels of contribution, impact, and excellence, at a ceremony with a reception to follow this Thursday, June 13, at Memorial Hall, Sanders Theatre, at 3:30 p.m.

Manning’s journey to her current role as Executive Director at Harvard’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) is a testament to her upbringing, determination, and the power of community. Over 21 years at Harvard, Jessica has transitioned through various roles, always driven by her passion for science and a deep-rooted commitment to supporting her colleagues and the academic community.

Typically, Manning polls the staff and faculty to determine who to nominate for the Harvard Hero Program and then coordinates a joint nomination for MCB representation. Unable to do so personally this year, she was unknowingly nominated and selected by dozens of MCB nominators in what she calls a heartwarming surprise and a highly appreciated honor.

“The success of a leader is largely dependent on the other members of the organization,” Manning says. “I am very appreciative of all the staff who are dedicated on a day-to-day basis to supporting and advancing MCB’s teaching and research mission, make an extra effort to show up in support of their community members, and strive to uphold the excellence of our administrative team.”

Early Life Instilled Core Values

Manning’s early life set the tone for a life marked by a strong sense of responsibility and a deep appreciation for education. “My parents are both my heroes,” she says, reflecting on her Polish immigrant parents’  journeys to the United States in search of the American dream. “They came here not knowing a word of English and had to navigate a new life from scratch. Their work ethic, resilience, and determination have significantly shaped who I am today.”

Her parents, who met in the US after immigrating separately, relied heavily on her for translation and adult-related responsibilities. This early responsibility instilled in her a remarkable ability to handle multiple priorities and a profound sense of duty. “I’m used to juggling several competing priorities at the same time but it’s most important to figure out what gets done first to keep moving forward,” she shares.  This experience laid the foundation for her multitasking abilities and her capacity to handle complex situations. In honor of her parents and as a reminder when faced with challenges, Manning has a vase in her office that reads, “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor”.

In high school, Manning’s interest in STEM subjects led her to Tufts University, where she initially declared a biology major. However, her career path took an unexpected turn when she interned at Massport in their business development office. This experience sparked a newfound interest in international relations, leading her to pursue a double major in biology and international relations – experiences that she would find invaluable in her increasingly demanding responsibilities requiring perception, tact, and strong organizational skills.

Transition to Harvard and MCB

After graduating, Manning joined the Harvard Medical School’s Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology as a staff assistant. “I quickly fell in love with the job, the people, and the environment,” Jessica recalls. Her passion for the work and her ability to contribute meaningfully to the academic community fueled her rapid ascent through various positions. Her journey at Harvard led her to the Broad Institute, where she worked as a financial manager. She ultimately joined MCB in January 2007 as an assistant financial director and has since held multiple roles, culminating in her current position as Executive Director, where she has partnered closely with four Department Chairs including Alex Schier (2016-2017), Venki Murthy (2017-2020), Sean Eddy (2020-2023), and Rachelle Gaudet (2023-Present), who have all supported her nomination.

Leadership and Achievements

Jessica’s leadership style is characterized by her ability to build trust and foster collaboration between faculty and administration. “Over the years, we have built a strong partnership based on mutual trust and respect,” Manning says. “When I guide a group of people with diverse backgrounds, views, and talents toward a shared vision or common goal by respecting their individuality and supporting them in personal and professional fulfillment, there is nothing more personally rewarding.”

“Jessica’s greatest contribution to MCB has been her dedication and her attitude,” says Russ Porter, Administrative Dean, FAS Sciences.  “Jessica leans into everything and advocates for the MCB community in so many ways, always showing her empathy, rational approach to problem solving, and of course a healthy sense of humor!  She has tackled literally hundreds of thorny issues and challenges in her many years of service here, and somehow found a way to leave everyone feeling good about her and valued for their contributions. I don’t know of a colleague who doesn’t love Jessica!  And that is a Harvard Hero!”

A sampling of kudos from Manning’s nominators follows:

“There are individuals who are good decision-makers, and there are individuals who are good with people, but rarely are there individuals who can do both – Jessica is absolutely one of them.” One nominator, reflecting on nearly three decades of interaction with departmental executive directors remarked, “In the almost 30 years I have interacted with departmental executive directors in MCB and other FAS departments, I view Jessica Manning as the very best of them.” Another noted, “She consistently goes way above and beyond in her work for MCB and for Harvard.” Highlighting her leadership during challenging times, one nominator praised, “She led the MCB faculty and staff through the difficult and uncertain times that we all experienced during the pandemic. Her calm, steady, and reassuring presence was appreciated by all.” Additionally, Jessica’s inclusiveness was commended with the words, “Jessica Manning has a big umbrella under which all issues no matter how big or small have room. With Jessica, one always has the impression that your voice and opinion matter.” Finally, her influence on the community was celebrated: “Jessica is a dedicated leader who has built a strong, vibrant community. MCB is a fun, happening place because of her leadership.”

One of Manning’s proudest achievements is the successful recruitment and onboarding of junior faculty members. “We’ve been able to hire a diverse group of talented individuals, which has enriched our community and advanced our academic mission,” she says. Under her leadership, the department has also strengthened its undergraduate programs, supporting over 500 students in concentrations like MCB, Chemical and Physical Biology, and Neuroscience.

Her role in creating the MCB Community Task Force on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging has proven to be “incredibly effective and rewarding.”  She was instrumental in creating the BioLounge, which MCB administers on a daily basis and has served as a catalyst for new connections over coffee and tea.  She is also thrilled that her years of hard work are paying off and that MCB Administration will be moving from 38 Oxford St (‘the bunker’) to its permanent home in the BioLabs space later this year. She believes this move will foster greater administrative unity and facilitate more seamless integration with our community. She also mentions her family – her husband, son, daughter, and parents-in-law, to whom she expresses her eternal gratitude for their unwavering support. They, too, are relieved, she jests, that she will at last cease discussing this topic at home!

Manning’s tenure has seen the department navigate numerous challenges, including fluctuations in faculty headcount and evolving administrative needs, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Her ability to adapt and lead through change has been crucial to maintaining the department’s stability and fostering a positive work environment. “My role requires a great deal of agility and adaptability,” she notes. “Each department chair has a different vision and working style, and my job is to support them effectively and to help execute departmental priorities.”

A Vibrant Off-Campus Life

Manning has a long history as an accomplished runner She was a short distance runner, a high school and college sprinter, but decided to train for a marathon. In 2015, she completed the Boston Marathon as part of a successful fundraising effort to support research for MeCP2 Duplication Syndrome.

Above all else, when outside of work Manning loves anything that brings her family together. “We as a family enjoy skiing together and boating, traveling, gardening, running road races, and going to my kids’ baseball and soccer games,” she says.

As she reflects on her 17-year journey at MCB, Manning remains committed to furthering the department’s mission and supporting her colleagues. “I’m proud of my role building and fostering an inclusive, diverse, respectful workplace culture with a high-performing, cohesive administrative team that provides excellent support to faculty, postdocs, students, and staff in the mission of high-quality research and teaching,” she says. “And in supporting and promoting an environment that fosters community building among members of diverse backgrounds, views, and talents with transparent and open communication.” Her dedication to continuous improvement and her deep-rooted passion for her work ensures that she remains a pivotal figure in the MCB community.


Jessica Manning

Jessica Manning