Lending a Hand in Health: Laurel Yasko
March 17, 2021
Laurel began her career as a nurse at a long-term care facility before eventually transitioning into the field of neurology, caring for head injury and stroke patients. Her experience with research eventually led to her current role as executive director of operations at Pitt CTSI. Despite her best efforts to rebel, Laurel ended up following a path similar to that of one very special person.
Laurel Yasko, MPPM, RN is the Executive Director of Operations at the University of Pittsburgh’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) where she is also Co-Director of the Regulatory Knowledge and Support Core as well as the Workforce Development Core. Yasko received her BS and MPPM degrees from the University of Pittsburgh.
Laurel: I think that's one of the biggest things that I’ve learned, both from being in this role at work and in my career and being a mom, is that you don't stop learning, you don't stop trying to figure out how to understand someone, how to help someone when they need help and how to not help them when they need to figure it out themselves.
Mike: From CTSI, this is the Products of Pittsburgh. A show about the people in Pittsburgh – innovators, scientists, community leaders – and the remarkable stories behind how they came to be and the work they’ve produced. I’m Mike Flock. On the show today, we catch up with Laurel Yasko, Executive Director of Operations at the University of Pittsburgh’s Clinical & Translational Science Institute.
Mike: Laurel began her career as a nurse. First, working in a long-term care facility and then transitioning to neurology and caring for head injury and stroke patients. Her move to research and becoming an executive director came a little later and actually followed a similar path to someone very close to her. Laurel grew up in Moon Township, and then later Sewickley, where the family moved when she was in the second grade. She was a social person and enjoyed being around people. By high school, if she wasn’t hanging out with friends, she was spending her weekends babysitting for other families, including a family of four kids! That’s a lot of responsibility, and trust, for a teenager. When it came time to decide on what to do for a career though, Laurel had to do some soul searching. She explored a few different paths, but eventually embraced her biggest influence and mentor. Her mother.
Laurel: So, my mom is actually my biggest role model and my best friend. So, she is also a nurse. She always told me I was going to be a nurse, and I said no, no, no and then here I am. She was extremely successful, professionally and personally. She retired about four years ago, so she'll be 80 in May. She started out as a clinical nurse, and when we were really young did not work so until we went to school. She was not working, but she was a labor and delivery nurse after that and then got into more of the academic side, so she was faculty in the School of Nursing and she was also one of the founding members of the Cancer Institute. When it started out, it was Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and then it went to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. So, she worked there until my daughter was born and then took about a nine-month leave. She left Pitt. She's still Professor Emeritus in the School of Nursing, but she went to Roswell Park Cancer Institute and commuted to Buffalo every week, when she was in her late 60s until she was 75 and a half years old, but she commuted every week to Buffalo and she was the COO for Roswell Park Cancer Institute. So, we have similar goals, although she was much more successful than I am. She was a real good mentor to not only to me and to my kids but to many, many, many people at Pitt and UPMC and Roswell. Still people that still work will say to me, are you Joyce's daughter and I’m like yes and they're like she was amazing and I’m like well she still is amazing.
Mike: And clearly influenced your career, obviously with nursing and higher education. Were there ever any points growing up where you thought you might do something different?
Laurel: Oh yes, Mike. So, the rebellious side of me. So, when I was in high school, which I was a good kid, but when I was in high school nobody wants to be like their mother, no girl wants to be like their mother so that's just the way it kind of works. I was very social in high school and probably less academic is probably the best way to put it, and it's probably the way that my mom would put it. It's not that I did terrible in school or anything else, but it just really wasn't a priority to me, but I love learning so, as I’ve matured that has definitely changed, but when I was in high school, I was more interested in being with my friends and going out and doing those kind of things. I have two brothers, one is older and one is younger, both overachievers and, you know, very smart and did really, really well and but I did not want to be anything like my mom. But right now, I would want to be everything like my mom. If I could be my mom and just clone her, it would be ideal for me, but growing up, you know that was just part of those teenage adolescent years. So, when I was, I think it was a junior in high school, I mean applying to colleges was very different then (we I just did this with my daughter, a couple years ago). You know, we didn't visit any schools, we didn't do any of that kind of thing we just kind of applied, and I think I applied to two schools. I started out, my mom had me get a personality test to see what I should be because she kept saying, you should be a nurse, you should be a nurse, so she had me do a personality test and it said that I should be a nurse or a teacher. And there was probably something else in that category, but it was that helping type of role. And so, of course, because she was a nurse, I was not being a nurse so I was, I went to elementary, I went for elementary ed. until my second semester sophomore year, where I started to get the learning experience or you know that the teaching experience type of thing and not that I was a student teacher yet, but we went into the classroom with the teachers and I thought, I love kids, always loved kids, big babysitter, all that type of thing growing up. And I thought this was the job for me and I left that first day of my teaching experience, and I remember going back to my dorm room and calling my mom and saying, there's no way I’m doing this. Because the kids were bad.
Laurel: Looking back on it now, I didn't think this then, but looking back on it now, it's like you're taking you know 20, 22, 26 sometimes different family, ways of being raised and disciplined and everything else and bringing it into a classroom which is really challenging and I give teachers a lot of credit because they're dealing with everything that comes from home and everything that happens in the classroom while they're trying to teach their kids. So, I personally didn't think that that was going to be the thing for me and so she said, well you have a choice like what are you going to do? And my mom is, while I love her to death and she's always like that good mentor, she always has a way of like sticking it to me of like well you could go and go to Cosmetology school or you could figure something else out ,right? And not that there's anything wrong with going to Cosmetology school because I, but I probably could never have done that, because that's not a skill that I would ever probably be able to master. But I was like okay now I need some deep thinking here like what am I going to do? So, I actually took a semester off and went to work because I really didn't know what I wanted to do and I just felt like you know, this is just maybe I don't want to be in school, maybe this is not for me.
Laurel: And so, I went to work and I went to work in a doctor's office, but it was more of what you would consider more of like a medical mall now kind of thing. It was Health America at the time, I think, Health America still may be around, but they had all the specialties in one office and I started out there working as a receptionist. And I quickly learned that that is definitely not what I wanted to do. I enjoyed interacting with people, though. And one of the things that my manager at the time, said you're a helper she said, you want to help, you need to figure out how to channel that to something that you want to do for the rest of your life. And it was good advice and so I went sort of with my tail between my legs to talk to my mom about what I should do next. Because I still was, even though I was like 20 at the time, I was still somewhat rebellious as to I don't want to be my mom, right? But I went and like said, I need to, like let's go to dinner, like and let's just figure out, like I just need to talk to you. So, we sat down and I told her what you know my manager said, and you know we talked about my experience which she had known about my teaching experience and that type of thing. And she said, why don't you just try it? She's like, why don't you just try like go back to school, you should be in school, just try.
Mike: According to a report from the National Center for Education and Statistics, about one third of all undergraduates in associate and bachelor degree programs change their major at least once within 3 years of enrollment. Other surveys have shown the number to be even higher. This may not be a surprise, because high school graduates are still trying to figure out their own identity, having spent nearly all of their lives up until that point under someone else’s guidance. And many colleges and universities today offer an incredible range of different degree programs, hundreds in some cases. Yet, more choice often introduces more uncertainty. Laurel had to try out a few different things before figuring out that nursing was the path that she wanted to pursue. And so Laurel went on to receive her associate’s degree in nursing from the Community College of Allegheny County and then went on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Pittsburgh.
Laurel: When I graduated there were no nursing jobs. I applied to 65 different jobs, and there, I mean like they didn't even have jobs posted, this was when it was like in the paper at the time, I mean this was years ago. But there were no jobs available, there was definitely not a nursing shortage, by any means. I sent my resume out to 65 different places. And couldn't find anything and I ended up getting a call from Canterbury Place, which is now part of UPMC, it's a long-term care facility in Lawrenceville. And I did get a call and I don't know if it was the bachelor's piece of it or what, but I got a call from them and went to work there as a charge nurse in the unit, and it was a long-term care facility, they were hiring me, a brand-new grad, as a charge nurse.
Mike: What is the charge nurse? What do you mean by that?
Laurel: Like in charge of the unit.
Mike: Wow, a lot of responsibility, starting off.
Laurel: Very much responsibilities and I knew nothing I mean like yes, you learn things in school, but you do not learn what to do when you're out in the real world, I mean like you know that's all part of, the education gives you the knowledge and the base, but you have to learn how to do the job, right? So, it was interesting, they hired two new grads, myself and this guy Chris, who, we actually are still friends today, but we had to navigate this and figure it out together and it was interesting. It's different being a charge nurse in a long-term care facility than it would be in a hospital setting because you know, but we had to 60 residents on our floor and all had a variety of medical issues, some were there short-term just for like respite care kind of thing and some of them this was their long-term living arrangements, but we met so many interesting people and so many like cool family members and things and I just have so many good stories from that. I was only there for a year, but it was a huge learning experience for me just to figure out the difference in taking care of someone that's end of their life and taking care of someone that is there for a short period of time.
Laurel: When positions started to open up, I went and I worked with head injury patients, which was also an amazing experience and that led me to stroke and neurology which was very interesting because neurology was probably the most challenging for me, but it's where my path led me and it was probably not only challenging but scary for me, I think, because I couldn't grasp it, like I can understand the anatomy and all that other types of things, but you know how things really worked was hard to grasp and so, in my clinical work, I learned more about that and I learned from the mentors that I had and the physicians that I work with.
Laurel: So, I worked for the stroke Institute at UPMC and I started out being more of a clinical nurse there, but then that got me into research, and so we did a lot of stroke research, acute stroke research that we would come in, in the middle of the night to enroll somebody in a research study that had had a stroke, and it was really cutting edge and cool stuff and we were doing interventional radiology and things that I never thought I would have experienced, but I learned so much there and I learned that I loved the research side of the job and I ended up being a research manager, our clinical trials manager in that department, and through that I met a neurooncologist, Cliff Schold, and he actually used to have Steve’s role when, before CTSI, we were the Office of Clinical Research, and met him, had talked a lot with him and he said, you know I’m putting together this office. And he's like you know, can you look at the job description I have for the position that we're looking for, and I said sure. And he's like you know it sounds like you have a lot experience like hiring coordinators and things like that, and I said sure I could do that. So, I’m like evaluating this job description, I’m like this is what I want to do. I called him and I said this sounds like a really cool job and I want it, and he was like okay. He's like, I was actually hoping you would say that.
Mike: It sounds like he was kind of his intent.
Laurel: Like sneaky way to slide that in, right? So, I went to work for Cliff and we were, actually our office was in Scaife Hall, so that that was in July of 2001 and then Cliff left, I think it was like 2004 and that's when Steve got the role of the Associate Vice Chancellor for Clinical Research and then the rest, I mean is, like the CTSI history, because when Steve came down, we started doing a whole bunch of new things and new ideas and it was so exciting. And he came to me one day I’ll never forget it, I was working on something that there was a deadline at the end of September. And it was like literally the last day of September, he’s like when you're done with that I want to talk to you about this project that we're going to apply for, it's like the CTSI grant and CTSA grant, and he's like, I don't know if it's going to be big deal or not, but we're going to talk about applying for it, I was like okay. But then when the full funding announcement came out, we put the grant together, lots of late nights. I remember the night before we had to send it, and this was before all grants were electronic, I was a Kinko’s at 10 minutes till midnight getting five copies or seven copies I can't remember, we had to get copies made, but I was there because Kinko’s was closing at midnight. I’m like, you can't stop, you have to keep printing these for me. But we literally wrote in the page numbers because we didn't, it was you know very different time. So, and then the next day, I think I dropped the boxes off at Steve’s house in the middle of the night. And next day, we came in and we went through every page, to make sure that they didn't make any mistakes or anything wasn't printed the wrong way or that type of thing and then we submitted that. And we were one of the first twelve sites awarded.
Mike: In 2006, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute was created at the University of Pittsburgh. That same year, Laurel went back to school, working on a Master’s in Public Policy and Management at the University of Pittsburgh, which she was able to directly apply in her role as executive director of operations. Over the next 15 years, Laurel would help build an infrastructure that facilitates and translates health research. What started as handful of people evolved into over a hundred full-time staff. Laurel’s responsibility grew as CTSI grew. And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Laurel wasn’t just responsible for taking care of her family and being there for her kids. She also had to be there for her staff and to help everyone adjust and adapt to what became the new normal.
Laurel: So, initially when we went you know to all leaving the office and working from home, I honestly in my head, I thought we would be home two weeks to four weeks. Never did I think that, I mean we're almost a year now, right? So, initially it was trying to get everybody set up, and making sure everybody was okay. That was really challenging, you know I don’t do IT stuff and everything but is everybody okay, do they have what they need, did they take what they needed from the office, that type of thing. And then we got involved, thankfully, and I’m very thankful for this, Steve got us involved in a lot of the COVID work. Different projects and the sero survey study and all those things that you know I remember it was like all of March, April, May even June, I’m like what did we do before, because we were doing all these new things, and then I kept thinking, but there's all that other stuff that still needs to be tended to so it was really stressful. And in the beginning, I was in denial right, I was like we're not going to be here that long, we’re not going be home that long, I’m not even setting up an office like I really didn't even set up an office.
Laurel: I was at our kitchen table and my son at the time, my daughter was a senior in high school, so she didn't really need my help and she was like, you know, senioritis for sure, even in you know virtual world. But my son was in second grade, and I was like, oh my gosh so I have to do all this for work, plus I have to teach him. Because they weren't learning and they really missed a lot last year, they really weren't learning much, it was just trying to get them some schooling and our district was great, but there was just so much that he needed to still learn, so it was this total balancing act right, so I think honestly until my son went to school at the end of September or middle of September, my daughter went to school in August, my husband went back to work, I think I was just like so stressed and I don't think I remember, I don't think I knew I was that stressed then, but when everybody was gone and I was at home by myself, like I just wanted to sleep. Like I just need to sleep. And so, I think I took like two days off and like didn't do anything, because that stress level was you don't realize it really when you're in it, but it was so stressful. You know I think the piece that I missed was really talking with people and seeing people and collaborating and you know coming up with new ideas and that's the piece I still miss today. So, while we've been so productive, the CTSI has done amazing things throughout this pandemic so far, amazing, amazing stuff. And stuff that I would have never even dreamed that we would have been a part of, but we were making a difference and we're making impact.
Mike: What's it like being a mom while also being like an executive director and having kind of responsibility for a growing team like a staff now it's 100 plus? You know you got a couple kids, for example, but then now you have this wide body of diverse individuals, how do you kind of, particularly during a pandemic like, how do you do that?
Laurel: It's very hard, but to be honest with you, I think that the skill sets are similar like not that I’m a mom to anybody at work, but you have to be there for people, and you have to listen so you know and that's something that I’m always working really hard on myself, you know as I self-reflect, of being a better listener. And one thing that I’m really working on is you know I’m a helper, I want to fix things, I’m a fixer, I want to help people and want to fix it. So, one of the things that I’m working on is listening more and not trying to fix and allowing others to fix, so I think that skill, I think I’ve actually learned that as being a mom because, having an adult child that, I am a fixer and I always wanted to help her, but I needed to give her that space to let her help herself and to make mistakes right, I mean everybody makes mistakes. And so, how do you teach your kid to make mistakes and recover from them and how do you teach your employees to make mistakes or when they do make mistakes, how to recover from them, and so I do a lot of sitting on my hands now because I feel like if I’m sitting on my hands I’m going to listen more than I’m going to talk. And I’m doing that both at home and, well, on zoom. That's been something that I’ve really been working on, as I mature in these roles, in both roles is that you’ve learned something new every single day, in both of these roles as a mom and as Executive Director and you know responsible for a lot of people and their jobs and their activities, is you learn something new, every day, either how a person thinks or a new idea or how to solve a problem. I don't have all the answers, and I know that. There's no way I would have all the answers, we have so many incredibly bright staff people that have a lot of good solutions. It's really taking that time to hear them out. I think that's one of the biggest things that I’ve learned. Both from being in this role at work and in my career and being a mom is that you don't stop learning, you don't stop trying to figure out how to understand someone, how to help someone when they need help and to how to not help them when they need to figure it out themselves.
Mike: Active listening is an important skill to understanding someone, building trust, and knowing what motivates them. It is tough with digital distractions and constant multi-tasking to practice active listening. But if someone knows they are being heard, they are more likely to share their ideas and provide constructive feedback, which creates a more engaged and productive workplace. And maybe the conversation that begins to build trust has nothing to do with work, but rather a shared experience or even hobby.
Laurel: I’ve recently taken up painting. So, it started out by, you know, trying to find things to do with my mom virtually because I haven't been able to really see my mom since summer. We will go and sit in her driveway and kind of away from her, but we haven't spent any time together, so I was like trying to think of creative ways for us to do things together, so I ordered, and with my kids too, so I ordered you know some canvases and paints and paint brushes and I had a set sent to her, and so we have like virtual painting parties on the weekends.
Laurel: But like really cool things. We started out by doing like the you know sort of the ones that they do online that walks you through it and now we're just kind of all just painting and talking and it's been a lot of fun actually, but it's trying to find that togetherness. The other thing that has been a project of mine recently is, you know that helper piece of me comes out, so I’ve been trying to find vaccine appointments for friends. I found them for my parents and friends of theirs and friends, my friends’ parents and things like that, so I’ve been able so far to schedule 45 people, it is not an easy task, but I do it late at night. It’s been challenging and it's been sad that this is how this has worked. I know everybody's trying their best but it's real, I can't imagine people that don't have somebody to do that for them how they're getting appointments. I think they're not. But you know refreshing a website, you know 100 times before an appointment pops up and things like that. Getting the whole way through where you get all the information in and then you get to the appointment, and they say no appointments available, it's frustrating but I’m not giving up, I’m going to keep going because to me, I want to pay that forward and help people that really need vaccines, that vulnerable group. So, I you know, I’ve taken on a lot of other things.
Mike: If you could select one word to describe yourself, what would that one word be?
Laurel: I think that word is helper. It's always been something I’ve wanted to do in my life or that naturally comes to me, and it may be self-serving and it may be selfish but helping others makes me feel good about myself. And I don't know, is that selfish? I don't know because it's that balance of, you know, sometimes people don't want to be helped right, and so you learn from that experience, as well as when you help someone and they say I didn't want you to do that. Okay lesson learned, you know and so, but then there's other people that don't ask for help that need the help. And that to me, are the ones that are most fulfilling and most helpful in growing as a person and as in learning how different people work.
Laurel: Besides being the helper, the other thing that usually comes to mind when I think of my mom and myself, and even my siblings is, we all have a really strong work ethic. And I think that was passed down from my great grandparents that I’ve never met but my mom and my grandmother, even though my grandmother's not Serbian, my grandfather was Serbian, my grandmother used to always tell me it's my Serbian roots. She would say hard working, strong working ethic, strong family ties and it's something there, I mean obviously it's how we were raised, too, but you know my brothers and I all have a very strong work ethic, we all have families, and we all give to our families, you know as hard as we give to our work. We always work hard for what we want, whether it's in work or in our kids or in our family life, or anything, we've always worked really hard to get what we what we wanted to achieve.
Mike: So, my last question then is, if you could go back and tell yourself something when you were 18 years old, what would it be?
Laurel: Listen to my mom.
Mike: Laurel Yasko, Executive Director of Operations for the University of Pittsburgh’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute. And by the way, Laurel isn’t done learning just yet. She’s considering a return to school for a PhD.
That’s our show. Thank you for listening to the Products of Pittsburgh. Be sure to check out our website at http://www.ctsi.pitt.edu/podcast to hear more episodes as well as learn about CTSI programs and services. I’m Mike Flock along with Zach Ferguson, until next time on the Products of Pittsburgh.
- 3:27 A mother’s influence
- 9:30 Charge nurse
- 11:34 The creation of Pitt CTSI
- 15:13 CTSI at home
- 18:36 Being a mom and executive director
- 21:25 A new hobby
- 23:55 One word to describe yourself