Pitt’s pandemic heroes: Staying at home full-time meant working even harder


Darlene Porter is a remote-work pioneer at Pitt, and she’s got some advice for those facing at least three and a half months more of hunkering at home.

Porter, grants manager for the School of Medicine’s Department of Immunology, has had a flex-time work schedule since 2009, taking one day per week at home. She’s even worked from her hospital room, during recovery from surgeries in 2018.

Of course, today is different: Porter is in her sixties and was afraid at first to go out of the house due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So she worked even harder than usual at home, she says.

“It has been a challenge for me to cut back my hours and get to normalcy,” she said. “I’ve talked to a number of people who feel overworked. I was beginning to feel that myself.”

She found herself taking notes on next steps for grants in progress, which she had never had to do, just to keep track while working at home.

“Start a routine,” she says. “Answer emails as promptly as possible. People need to know that you are connected and you are here to help.”

And move your workspace throughout the day, if you’re just working from a laptop. Porter goes from her living room to the back porch when weather allows. “I love this because I can hear nature, I can hear the birds singing,” she says. “It really makes me feel better. It’s a matter of setting up an environment” that works best.

Porter began at Pitt in 2000 and has been immunology’s only grants manager in that time. Today, she is senior to every faculty member in the department. Her work supports faculty research on various diseases, from lupus to cancer, and the acquisition of federal training grants from the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere for post-docs and those close to a Ph.D. She helps them apply by mentoring and training the new faculty, doing all the paperwork, monitoring the money and helping them do their reports.

In March when the pandemic hit, there were certain deadline delays, but now things are back to normal, she says, with the NIH and other agencies asking faculty to supplement the grant applications with extra material in a scant one to three days. “They think no one ever goes on vacation,” Porter says. “They think the whole world is connected.

“I look at my job as being an administrator for them,” she says of her department’s faculty. “They’re scientists. I want them to do as little as they can to get this grant submitted. I want to take as much stress off of them as I can.”

Now Porter has decided to accept the University’s early retirement offer, and she spent a day last week cleaning out her office. Only a third of immunology faculty had returned to campus so far, she says, and of course they were not all there on the same day. “Just walking into my office, it was like a ghost town,” Porter says. “It was like coming in on a Saturday or a Sunday.

“I thought we were going to be back before I retired,” she adds. “That’s breaking my heart, because I’m so attached to my faculty members.”

She plans to keep in touch, so she can hear about new grant successes, based on their work together. She recalls with fondness hearing her department chair turn to her at a meeting about one grant in preparation and say: “Darlene, you’re just as excited as anyone else.”

“And I was.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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