It’s common for School of Medicine employees to work here for 20 or more years. But it’s less common to meet an employee who has been here since she was 15 years old.
Rhonda Matt, director of research and business operations for the Department of Pediatrics, made her working debut in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine during the summers while in high school. Her mother, Andrea Thalmann, worked in the Department of Medicine at the time. For about $2 an hour, Matt spent her summers taking care of routine office duties.
“I remember seeing the new fellows come in,” she says. “Vicki Fraser (MD, interim head of the Department of Medicine) was an incoming fellow when I worked in the Division of Infectious Diseases, and so was Dan Goldberg (MD, PhD), who is now the division co-director. It’s been very fun to watch the changes in the faculty.”
Matt continued working in the division while an undergraduate accounting major at Washington University, taking the shuttle bus from her dorm over to work after classes and working full-time in the summers.
When she graduated from the university in 1986 with a degree in business administration, she took a job as a staff accountant at Price Waterhouse in St. Louis.
“I only stayed a year,” she says. “It wasn’t my thing. I like the interaction here with all of the people — physicians, students, administrative staff and lab personnel. It’s very fulfilling being a part of what the faculty members are accomplishing and the research they are conducting, particularly in pediatrics, making changes in the lives of children.”
In pediatrics, Matt oversees the $30 million laboratory and patient-oriented research enterprise within the department, including the administrative aspects of research, such as human resources issues, payroll, policy changes and anything related to grant funding and agencies. She also serves on several university committees related to research administration.
Perhaps Matt’s biggest and most visible accomplishment stands at the corner of Euclid Avenue and St. Louis Children’s Place: the McDonnell Pediatric Research Building.
“When we built this building 12 years ago, Dr. (Alan) Schwartz (MD, PhD, the Harriet B. Spoehrer Professor and head of Pediatrics) wanted me to oversee the building construction and the organization of getting everyone in here, and at the same time, he decided to change the organization in the department. Previously, there was one administrator per division who did clinical and research work. And, researchers’ offices were next to their labs, so they didn’t interact with people in other divisions.”
The goal for the new building was to separate the clinical and research domains and to separate the science by common themes, not by divisions.
“We were one of the first at the university to have an open-lab structure,” she says. “It was novel and exciting, but it was also very difficult to orchestrate.”
“Rhonda Matt has an exceptional ability to prioritize numerous activities simultaneously, has an intuitive sense of where an issue is likely to arise and, importantly, is very prospective,” Schwartz says. “In addition, she is an excellent listener, a most effective leader and a wonderful colleague.”
At the same time, Matt reorganized the staff so that their jobs were more focused and defined positions. To do so, she interviewed every staff member to determine strengths and interests, and placed people in new roles.
The building and construction, as well as the reorganization, took two years.
“I had a hard hat with my name on it, and I’d come over here every day to meet with the contractors and deal with daily issues,” she says. “The whole process was very difficult and challenging, but I learned a lot, like how to read blueprints.”
Outside of work, Matt leads a very active life. She grew up with horses and rode often, and while in high school, played softball and tennis. She still plays tennis, and now plays golf every Wednesday night at Forest Park with other women from the university. She also takes aerobics classes at lunchtime in the Irene Walter Johnson building.
Four years ago, she jumped out of an airplane in Vandalia, Ill., fulfilling a life-long dream of skydiving. She has also taken up kayaking, most recently on a trip with her children to Sanibel Island, Fla.
Matt’s children – daughter Whitney, 22, and son Corey, 19 – are front and center in her life. Both of them are students at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington: Whitney is pursuing a master’s in business administration and Corey is an undergraduate.