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Renate Hellmiss a Harvard Hero

Renate Hellmiss a Harvard Hero

When Renate Hellmiss learned she had been named a Harvard Hero this year, she was shocked. She was surprised by the award itself, and was quick to throw the glory back to her hard working team in the MCB Graphics group. But she was even more impressed that the staff at Harvard’s Molecular and Cellular Biology department were able to organize a gathering to honor her without her knowledge.

“I had no idea,” she said of the surprise congratulatory gettogether. “I mean, I’m supposed to be dealing with news, and I was really surprised at how well prepared this reception was, on such short notice. Not only an amazing cake, and a poster that had been cartooned, but also Jessica [Manning, Executive Director of MCB] made sure that there were people in the door so if I decided to run, that they could stop me.”

This natural humility is typical of Renate, who is known in the department for her work ethic and her efficiency. She is quick to help any Harvard student or professor who needs posters printed, and the department trusts her to keep the graphics equipment up to date. She also acts as the primary communications contact for the department, organizing students for photo shoots when they win awards and hiring freelancers to provide news and announcements for MCB’s website.

“Renate is long overdue for the Harvard Hero Award and I’m delighted that we (MCB Faculty, Staff, Postdocs and Students) could jointly surprise her with this well-deserved recognition,” said Manning. “Renate plays a key role in representing the heart and soul of MCB and always goes above and beyond to improve and strengthen our community with her immeasurable talent, wit and thoughtfulness. Harvard is very fortunate to have such a hero.”

Renate had studied molecular biology and biochemistry in college, and has always been interested in art. Before Harvard, she was employed at the biotech company Genentech in South San Francisco as a research assistant, and later trained as a scientific illustrator. In the days before digital imaging software, technical illustrators with science backgrounds were especially invaluable to translate data into accurate illustrations and figures. Under her mentor Carol Morita, Renate helped bridge the gap between artists and scientists.

Carol had previously come to the east coast to help with the illustrations for the first edition of Harvard professor Mark Ptashne’s book A Genetic Switch. When she was asked to come back to help with the second edition, she decided that she did not want to deal with more New England weather, so she recommended Renate for the job. By lucky chance Renate’s husband, Ernie Peralta, had also been offered a job at Harvard as a junior faculty member at MCB, so in 1989 off they went: she to illustrate, and he to start his lab and teach molecular biology and biochemistry.

Renate was given an office in Mark’s lab for her work on his book, and supplemented her work by freelancing for Boston’s booming biotech industries. Before software like PowerPoint and Photoshop were in common use, her graphics skills were in high demand. She was forever being interrupted to be asked to work on other professors’ images and figures.

“And so I sat there, and faculty could walk in, and I’d help them draw figures,” she said. “And later there was actually a space with a total of six computers, so people could sit in there, and I was sitting there doing my thing, and they could interrupt me or they could ask me questions. And more and more came, and I’m like, wait a minute, free advice is okay, but unlimited free advice is not.”

Finally, in 1999, she was offered a part time job with MCB with benefits. She continued helping others with computer images, and her main work involved drawing images for presentations, but she also helped print slides, posters, and photographs of autoradiogram and gels. When the staff noticed that she was in the office for longer hours than some of the full-time employees, her job was made full time.

“[Renate’s] intelligence, efficiency and dedication have been invaluable for MCB, as well as for the larger community at Harvard,” said Venki Murthy, Professor and Chair of MCB. “Her wonderful design esthetic is embedded in every poster printed by MCB-affiliated scholars, every flyer you see posted and the layout of the BioLounge. We are all very grateful for her continued presence in MCB!”

Sadly, in 1999 Renate lost her husband Ernie to brain cancer. But despite what some might think about what Renate calls “hotshot” Harvard professors, the faculty and staff of MCB rallied around her and her husband for the three years that he battled cancer, going with him on walks, helping take him to his chemo and radiation treatments, and coming to hospice to say goodbye in his last months.

“When he was sick, his colleagues and some staff members visited all the time,” Renate said. “They actually cooked meals. They could have run out and gotten it catered, no, they cooked meals, brought them over, went to walks with him, took him to chemo and radiation. So, it wasn’t just me.”

Besides the excitement of a fast-paced work environment, it is this sense of comradeship that Renate appreciates most about working with MCB. After her husband passed, an award was created in his name for the best defense performance and dissertation proposal from an MCB G2 student. Renate herself continues his tradition of supporting MCB students, offering everything from advice on graphics to encouragement in their academic work.

“Renate makes our department feel like home,” said MCB postdoc Jeff Farrell. “When you join the department, Renate is one of the first members of the staff to greet you, since MCB Graphics takes everyone’s photo to put on the wall. Renate tracks our progress and celebrates our achievements; tracking people down at their desks to congratulate them on publications, fellowships, and other noteworthy events. She is one of the most powerful forces in making the department feel like a community, since everyone knows Renate, and Renate knows everyone.”

“Renate is an exceptional community member and community builder,” said Catherine Dulac, Higgins Professor of MCB and HHMI Investigator. “She brings people together with her sense of community, tireless work and sense of humor. She is a fabulous graphic artist, who, thanks to her outstanding creative and technical skills, transforms draft figures into beautiful illustrations. She also cares about the rigor of the science presented, and she is genuinely interested in learning about new discoveries. Moreover, she is always at the front line to help the community at large, or to help members of our community who experience personal or professional hardship.”

Ever since she was hired, the MCB community has continued to grow, and Renate’s work has expanded with it. In 2003 she was put in charge of news and communications for the website, which has gone from 20 to 30 stories a year to more than 90, along with posting to MCB’s Twitter feed. Throughout the year, but especially around commencement, Renate can be seen haranguing MCB professors for quotes and story updates, doing everything she can to keep the news site up to date and accurate while simultaneously managing freelance writers for content.

The MCB Graphics team has also expanded to offer services to the wider Harvard community, at competitive prices and very quick turnaround, while still continuing to retain the high quality people have come to expect. With the help of developer Raman Prasad, who created a one-of-a kind poster printer scheduler that allows scientists to schedule when their poster file will be printed, MCB Graphics’ system allows people to reserve a printer online and then immediately run over to the MCB building where, depending on the volume of orders that day, their poster will be ready. However, people must be prepared for a lecture if their images are not up to the graphics group’s standards.

“So what I like to say is, ‘attitude is free around here and don’t insult our printers,’” Renate said. “What I mean by that is if you give us low-resolution file, we might say, ‘we’re not going to print that, you can improve it.’ We are the only place where you can make an appointment, and we help you design your poster. Or we might help you troubleshoot your poster. There’s no other place where you get this kind of service, and the scientists are very appreciative for feedback on their graphics.”

In addition to on-the-spot help with images, the MCB Graphics group offers extra classes in the summer for MCO students. “Illustrator for Scientists” will be offered again this year, and will help students get the most out of the resources available at MCB.

“MCB has always focused on the larger community and my group is a perfect example,” Renate said. “It all started with one person helping MCB professors with their slide presentations, book illustrations, and figure design to be used in scientific publications. With the continued support of the Chair, faculty and the executive director, it has grown into MCB Graphics. Though the graphic needs have changed over time, the demand for support is bigger than ever. That is why we started to offer Illustrator for Scientists and hope that it will turn into an interactive online course.”

“Renate has been a crucial figure teaching me Adobe skills that made both of my papers look professional,” said graduate student Ania Puszynska. “I took her class, however she spent a lot of time outside of class to help me learn, and offered a lot of critique and feedback. This process was invaluable and she offered her time despite her very busy schedule. I am very grateful for that.”

Although she is very proud of the work done by her team of part-time artistic professionals, Renate would love to be able to add full-time staff support to contribute to the goal of helping researchers present the most polished version of their work possible. In the past decade, Renate has noticed that time and attention have become more limited commodities, making it more difficult for even the best research to be noticed. “Because, the reality is, you have to sell your data,” she said. ”Attention span is getting shorter. Speed is increasing. And also, less text, more images. So, that means often, more work for us.”

With the demanding nature of scientific research and publishing, that work she mentions must be as fast and flawless as possible. Luckily for Harvard scientists, Renate and her team are up to the challenge.

“All of us have learned that we can rely on her for exceptional service, but few of us stop to think how far into the community she reaches,” said Polina Kehayova, Scientific Director of MCB. “When I walk through MCB, I see Renate in everything; the beautiful artwork in the hallways, the journal covers and figures for scientific publications, the logos for the undergraduate concentrations, the retreat T-shirts and posters, the BioLounge mugs, the seminar posters, the news… I can keep going and going. She is a generous, funny and caring colleague and a foundation that we all lean on.”


Harvard Heroes, a University-wide recognition program, celebrates the accomplishments of Harvard staff whose work supports the mission of Harvard at the highest levels of contribution, impact and excellence.

All are welcome to attend and support the 2018 Harvard Heroes at an award ceremony, hosted by President Drew G. Faust, to be held:

Thursday, June 14, 3:30 p.m.
Memorial Hall, Sanders Theatre
Reception to follow at Annenberg Hall (next to Sanders Theatre)

by Mary Parker