In 1975, amid the crush of people who flooded into Boston to watch the World Series, Nancy Hegarty had an epiphany. “The roads were a sea of people,” she recalls. “Before the game started, we had reached capacity [at the Cask and Flagon, the bar where she was working]. We actually had to shut the front door and lock it.”
“I was waitressing and tending bar,” she continues, “And I reached a point where I thought, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to do this for rest of my life.’”
Soon after, she spotted a classified ad about a staff position in registration at Peter Brent Brigham Hospital, applied, and got the job. That job led to other positions in administration and grant preparation for biomedical departments and, eventually, to Hegarty’s current role in the department of Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) at Harvard University.
Today, Hegarty is MCB’s Assistant Director for Sponsored Research and a recipient of the 2019 Harvard Hero Award. The university-wide award is Harvard’s highest honor for staff members in recognition of their exceptional service. The Heroes are chosen from a pool of nominees based on recommendations from faculty, students, and staff. Hegarty’s selection as a 2019 Harvard Hero marks the fourth consecutive year where an MCB staff member received the award.
“We, the faculty, students, and staff of MCB enthusiastically nominated Nancy Hegarty as Harvard Hero and we’re thrilled that she was selected,” says MCB Executive Director Jessica Manning, who led the effort to nominate Hegarty.
“Nancy has excelled as the MCB Assistant Director for Sponsored Research for 13+ years,” Manning adds. “Nancy has been extraordinarily successful in identification, preparation, submission and award of multiple types of grant applications and fellowships totaling over 1000 submitted proposals with an average of $25 million awarded annually.”
Going Above & Beyond
In addition to Hegarty’s impressive track record, the nominators also cited her dedication, friendliness, and sense of humor. “Nancy is really a rock for MCB faculty,” says MCB faculty Catherine Dulac, who has worked with Hegarty for many years. “As a junior faculty ignorant of all things related to grant applications, Nancy held my hand in each step of the process, and still now as a senior faculty, I know that she is always available for explaining, anticipating, reading and correcting my submitted material.”
“She also has a remarkable personality,” Dulac adds. “Always available, helpful, cheerful: that sunny and helpful disposition makes a huge difference for stressed faculty rushing to finish their grant applications and scared of missing or misinterpreting key elements of their grant material,”
“Nancy consistently goes above and beyond for the faculty in our department. Not only is she invaluable to her faculty, she also provides tremendous support to her colleagues,” says Associate Director for Faculty Services Michelle Cicerano. “She has a wealth of knowledge and is an incredible resource for the department.”
“I completely rely on her knowledge and her professionalism,” MCB faculty Sean Eddy agrees. “Every time we submit a proposal from the lab it runs like clockwork.”
Hegarty’s role is vital for MCB’s success. Every time a scientist applies for or receives a grant, they must run a gauntlet of paperwork and formatting minutiae, and Hegarty specializes in helping researchers navigate the “pre-award” part of the process. Though many people find such detail-oriented work lugubrious, Hegarty finds the nuances of grant applications fascinating.
“I often say I should have been a lawyer,” she says. “Because I just love all of it, the rules and regulations. I’m a rules girl.”
She traces her interest in understanding government grant-giving agencies to a project she undertook while working as an administrative assistant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (which formed through the merger of Peter Brent Brigham and two other hospitals). A physician asked her to assist on a grant proposal, so Hegarty threw herself into learning as much as she could about the NIH.
“This was a time when grants were written on a typewriter,” she says. “And if you were running late in submitting this via the mail, a lot of the PIs–the principal investigators–would actually take a flight down to Washington and drop off the grant.”
Technology has progressed in the decades since, but Hegarty’s interest in the ins-and-outs of grant-giving agencies hasn’t waned. “There’s always something to learn,” she says. “I think anyone in this particular only [pre-award work] position has to enjoy reading, because you constantly read for updates and changes and whatnot.”
Her colleagues have also noticed her extraordinary dedication to pre-award administration (also called “pre-work” or just “pre”). Manning points out that most Harvard departments have admins who handle both the “pre” and “post-award” work on grants, but Hegarty is MCB’s lone “pre” specialist.
“We’ve been structured with a Nancy, who focuses on the pre-award, and then a post-award team,” Manning says. ”The fact that she’s been able to single-handedly—for well over a decade— be the one point of contact who submits all the faculty grants and student fellowships out the door is actually very unique…I can’t imagine finding anybody to replace her who’s as passionate about doing this type of pre-award work by themselves for an entire department.”