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Arlene Garrison: 50 years of achievements, all fueled by peanut M&M's

A career that began 50 years ago at the Knoxville Public Library will come to a gentle close when Arlene Garrison, Ph.D., retires from ORAU on May 22.

Arlene Garrison: 50 years of achievements, all fueled by peanut M&M's

Arlene Garrison, Ph.D., ORAU Retiree

Garrison, vice president, University Partnerships, joined ORAU 10 years ago, and in that time, she made more than 100 visits to member universities in the ORAU consortium. She and the University Partnerships Office (UPO) staff grew the consortium from 98 member universities to 127 in 2020.

“Universities were hungry for stronger ORAU relationships, and when I arrived, a high priority was to set a schedule to personally visit everyone. I listened to councilors as they told me their perspectives on the value of membership. After all, the universities have been at the core of ORAU since the company was founded,” said Garrison.

Garrison, who is known to have almost boundless energy, fueled these trips by munching peanut M&M candies. As the UPO staff can attest, she moves fast, works hard, asks lots of questions and makes changes as needed.

“I enjoyed watching Arlene in action during several campus visits over the years,” said Eric Abelquist, Ph.D., executive vice president and chief research officer. “A most memorable trip was the ‘Texas Roundup’ in 2011. We flew to Houston, rented a car and made visits to Rice University, Texas A&M, University of Texas at Austin, and UT San Antonio all in one week.”

“Campus visits are important for really understanding the capabilities of our university consortium and being able to help match research needs with strong, world-class research capabilities,” said Abelquist. Garrison enhanced ORAU’s scientific research opportunities and expanded partnerships with universities, national laboratories and private industry. She developed strong ties with leaders of the educational institutions.

“The annual meetings of the Council of Sponsoring Institutions were the highlights of my years at ORAU. Every year we had a new topic of extreme interest,” said Garrison. She enjoyed the camaraderie and exchange of ideas.

Extensive university experience

Prior to joining ORAU, Garrison spent 30 years at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, holding senior leadership positions in the Chemistry Department, the College of Engineering and the Research Office. She accepted an appointment to the National Science Foundation (NSF) through an interagency program agreement with the University of Tennessee. At NSF, she led programs to strengthen research and education in science and engineering across the United States.

“I kept playing in a bigger playground,” said Garrison. “Research collaboration was the tool to solve big research challenges.”

“Her success in both research and professional service led to increased management responsibility throughout her career,” said Abelquist. “Her research expertise, leadership and administrative talents have shaped the direction of the University Partnerships Office since she arrived at ORAU in 2010. She has consistently identified ways to enhance the value proposition for our university partners.”

“I really felt I could make a difference at ORAU,” said Garrison. “I engaged Council leadership and talked with them about the potential of University Partnerships.” Garrison and Jamey Kennedy, then vice president of Business Development, worked together to put in place appropriate partnership agreements and funding vehicles, such as memorandums of understanding (MOU) and indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts, to increase collaboration with universities on research projects. Also, Garrison worked with the former ORAU corporate secretary, Monnie Champion, to update, revise and modernize the consortium’s bylaws.

Arlene Garrison: 50 years of achievements, all fueled by peanut M&M's

Arlene Garrison was joined by her son, John, at the 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting when she was inducted an AAAS Fellow.

Of her many achievements, Garrison is most proud of the ORAU-Directed Research and Development (ODRD) program.

“We desired to better leverage our university consortium to not only strengthen our core competencies and grow our research portfolio, but to enhance the competitive value of our university consortium,” recalled Abelquist. “To grow ORAU’s business by leveraging university partnership—a win-win paradigm—would advance ORAU’s mission. She has been an invaluable mentor and friend to many as she left an indelible mark in developing ORAU’s nascent research enterprise.”

Mentoring and serving

“All these accomplishments were possible because I had an excellent team,” said Garrison, noting she managed to add one staff person to the University Partnerships Office because of its increased activity.

“I have experienced the impact that a strong leader can make, while at the same time, strengthening her team to also be leaders and to grow professionally and personally,” said Senior University Partnerships Specialist Cathy Fore, who joined UPO in 2003.

“Whenever I am wondering what next steps to take in my work activities, I can always lean on WWGD—What Would Garrison Do?” Fore said.

Garrison’s influence, drive and guidance were felt across the company. As a member of the ORAU Executive Team, she served on the Strategic Planning Team and worked on the corporate branding initiative.

For several years, she directed ORAU’s United Giving Campaigns. “It was always a great experience working with different groups at ORAU and getting to know about community needs and different programs,” she said. On behalf of ORAU, Garrison serves on the Board of Directors of the Emory Valley Center, a nonprofit agency aiding children and adults with disabilities in the East Tennessee area.

“She reflects the ORAU values by giving back to the community,” said Abelquist, noting Garrison routinely attended East Tennessee Economic Council (ETEC) meetings and other community functions. She served on the board of the Anderson County Chamber of Commerce.

“I think she will always be thinking about and caring for her ORAU team and her community,” said Fore. Garrison developed detailed guidance to ensure a smooth leadership transition to Kenneth W. Tobin, Ph.D., incoming vice president of University Partnerships.

Garrison will continue her professional involvement with the National Science Foundation and, as a tireless advocate for chemistry, she will remain engaged in the American Chemical Society (ACS). Garrison, who earned a doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Tennessee, is an ACS Fellow, an alternate councilor for the ACS East Tennessee Section, chair of the ACS Senior Chemists Committee and past chair of the ACS Business Development and Management Division. In 2019, Garrison was elected to the rank of a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in recognition of her professional service.

Arlene Garrison: 50 years of achievements, all fueled by peanut M&M's

Arlene Garrison enjoys the spring blooms in her garden.

Retirement activities

In her retirement, Garrison will devote time to traveling, reading, visiting family, relaxing at the beach and doing arts and crafts. She sings in the Chancel Choir at Fountain City United Methodist Church, which is located not too far from the Knoxville Public Library branch in North Knoxville where she held her first job as a teenager. She is a graduate of Fulton High School and was inducted into the school’s “Wall of Fame” in 2018.

Now living in Oak Ridge, Garrison plans to join activities at the Oak Ridge Senior Center when it reopens. She will make frequent trips to Huntsville, Alabama, where son John lives with wife Briana and their three children, Arthur, James and Leonard.