Operations manager welcomes all to Lineberger
Massey Award winner Melissa Mack has put on thousands of events and is a mentor to many at Carolina’s premier cancer center.
Through her years of organizing events for the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Melissa Mack has remained conscientious and detail-oriented — sometimes to a fault.
“I’m always scared that I’ve forgotten something,” said Mack, who’s nearing three decades at Lineberger and works as its operations manager and special events coordinator.
So, it’s fitting that when Mack found out she won a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, she initially thought she made a mistake, even though she’s made a career out of consistently being dependable and error-free.
At home in the comfort of her bed at night, she heard the ping of her phone — the special one she’s configured for work emails — and figured she’d better check.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, did I forget to do something for Dr. Earp?’” she wondered, referring to Shelton “Shelley” Earp, Lineberger Cancer Center director and professor of medicine and pharmacology at the UNC School of Medicine.
That brief moment of nervousness soon turned into joy tinged with disbelief.
“I sat straight up,” Mack recalled. “I said, ‘This cannot be true.’”
It was true, and the small price Mack had to pay for this good news was a sleepless night. “I was grinning so much that night, my face was sore when I woke up,” she said.
Able and willing to help with anything
While Mack reacted with disbelief, her colleagues found it hard to believe that she hadn’t already received a Massey Award. They quickly took action to commemorate the honor, printing a sign that read “The Mack Wins the Massey” and posting it outside Lineberger’s administrative suite.
According to her nominators, Mack does it all, does it well and does it with a smile.
While her primary duties involve the day-to-day operations of Lineberger and coordinating events and faculty recruitment, Mack also takes on a litany of other roles and responsibilities as comprehensive and wide-ranging as the center itself. She oversees and mentors Lineberger’s work-study students, who call her “Mama Melissa.” She puts her institutional knowledge of the center to use answering questions from newcomers and veterans alike. And if a truck is improperly parked by the air intake and sending nauseating fumes into the building, well, she’ll go out there and tell its driver to move.
“I seriously doubt we could maintain our top national reputation as a premier cancer center without her,” wrote Andrew Olshan, the Barbara S. Hulka Distinguished Professor in Cancer Epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Mack’s most important responsibility is overseeing every research event at Lineberger, one of only 53 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation. Those range from Lineberger’s weekly seminar series to its big annual Scientific Symposium and everything in between, including postdoc-faculty and geriatric oncology retreats and research symposia.
The event work demands attention to detail, flexibility, compassion and customer service skills. Mack coordinates with attendees from Lineberger and those coming from out of town. She contacts and books guest speakers, arranging all travel and lodging.
“From the time they get here until they leave, I’m pretty much in contact with each one of those speakers,” Mack said.
This story is part of The Well’s coverage of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards, which recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. Look for new recipient profiles to come or find others you may have missed.
She keeps detailed notes of different venues around the area and makes sure to book the best for any given event. (She’s even currently planning an event in Chicago.) From there, she’ll make arrangements for food and help manage logistics on site with Lineberger faculty to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
In the world of scientific research events, running smoothly counts for a lot. Bernard Weissman, a professor of pathology and lab medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, has received many compliments from seminar and symposia speakers on how pain-free their visits to Lineberger events were.
“Although these comments may appear trivial in nature, I can attest to how uncommon error-free visits to other institutions occur,” he wrote in his letter nominating Mack.
In any given year, Mack estimates that she puts on around 100 Lineberger events. That works out to thousands over the years.
“Sprinkle water on Melissa and up pops a symposium,” Earp has joked.
Even when a last-second audible is needed, Mack adjusts. Take for instance the guest who neglected to tell her that he was Kosher until an event was about to begin. Thanks to Mack’s familiarity and stores of goodwill with the venue coordinator, they hustled to provide a kosher lunch.
“I guess if you’re nice to people, they don’t mind helping you,” she said.
First impressions make a difference
Multiple colleagues consider Mack the face of Lineberger. Her warm and welcoming personality has not only left a good impression on one-time visitors but also future Lineberger faculty. In her role overseeing faculty recruitment, Mack regularly arranges visits for prospective Lineberger members. Michael James Emanuele, now an associate professor of pharmacology with a lab at Lineberger, was once one of those over a decade ago.
Visiting Lineberger for a second interview, Emanuele came to campus with his wife and their newborn daughter. Emanuele recalls Mack going above and beyond to make sure the young family had the accommodations they needed, including a rental car — and then a replacement rental delivered to the Carolina Inn when the first broke down.
“She made it a hundred times easier than it could have been,” Emanuele said. “She does this for everyone.”
After Emanuele began working at Lineberger, he made it a point to tell Mack that her kindness and care factored in his decision to come to Carolina, something she said has stuck with her.
“I love people. Period,” said Mack. “I love my family and love my job here at Lineberger. So, I have two families: my real family and my Lineberger family.” And there is overlap. Her son Jonathan also works at Lineberger as an assistant facilities director, and her husband, Kirby, is a zone manager with Carolina Housekeeping.
After nearly three decades, Mack remains inspired and committed to her work, empowered by Lineberger’s mission and her steadfast desire to help others, whether that’s befriending patients she saw yearly at Lineberger’s kidney cancer meeting or delicately redirecting those who mistakenly go to her building instead of the hospital for treatment.
The work sometimes stretches into the weekend.
“I go home on Saturday, Sunday. I’m getting calls from faculty candidates. I don’t get paid for that sometimes — and it’s my fault because I don’t put it on my timesheet,” she said. “But I feel like that’s my job — to help them.”
At Lineberger, it’s hard to find anyone the Mack hasn’t helped.