The Secret Lives of Martinos Folk: Carol Barnstead and the Center’s cast of colorful characters

Gary Boas

I have this theory that you need to be a character to work at the Martinos Center; you have to be a bit of an oddball, albeit in a fun, quirky kind of way. I’m not sure whether this is a prerequisite enforced during one of the hiring steps or is simply the result of some kind of self-selection process. Whatever the case, I know it in my bones to be true: People who have no imagination or appreciation of others’ eccentricities just won’t cut it here.

I recently ran my theory by Carol Barnstead. Carol had retired from the Center a few months before, after some 31 years of helping keep it afloat by overseeing the assignment of visas and managing other HR concerns. It was a warm, early fall day in September and she and I were sitting on a bench in the Charlestown Navy Yard, watching boats glide across the water and chatting about her many experiences in the Center as it grew from a handful of researchers in a shadowy subbasement of MGH to the major facility it is today. I figured if anyone could confirm the theory, it would be her.

She laughed when I explained my idea – though, notably, she didn’t try to refute it. “Well, if you’re not a character when you arrive,” she said, “you will be shortly after.”

We sat for a while more after this, teasing out the idea, turning it over and inspecting it from various angles. Our conversation was wide-ranging, blithely skipping from one topic to the next. But in retrospect I realized that, as we talked, we were circling around a couple of weighty, even fundamental questions: (1) What, exactly, does it mean to be a “character” in the MGH Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging? And (2) in what ways does the preponderance of characters in Martinos contribute to its standing as one of the premier biomedical imaging research centers in the world?

One of the first of the Martinos quirks we discussed was a propensity toward tardiness. In what is known colloquially – and probably euphemistically – as “Martinos Time,” researchers in the Center often view meeting start times not as the bullseye in the middle of the target but as one of the outer rings: kind of close but by no means where you were actually aiming. “No one is ever really on time at Martinos,” Carol said. “They never have been, since day one. You could tell them there’s free cake and they would show up a half hour late.” There’s too much else going on, and it’s too easy to get caught up in whatever is happening in the Center right now, minutes before you’re slated to be somewhere else in the building.

But it isn’t their occasional disregard for the artificial constraints of time and schedules that makes Martinos folk special. Rather, it’s the impulses underlying their chronic lateness: an openness to possibilities and a willingness – a sense of obligation, even – to pursue any idea that arises wherever (and for however long) it may take them, whether it emerges in the lab, in a heady conversation in the hallway or simply in the fever dream of one’s own thoughts. In the end, Carol and I decided, the tardiness itself isn’t the point. It’s the reasons for the tardiness that make the Center the hotbed of science it is.

As we were discussing the finer points of chronic lateness, people from the Center started strolling by our perch along the water: colleagues from the administrative staff, a couple of postdoctoral fellows, someone from the research staff. Several stopped and chatted with Carol, asking how she was enjoying her well-deserved retirement; others smiled and said hello as they passed. Once we were alone again, Carol remarked upon how open and friendly Martinos folk are, and how genuinely interested in others they seem to be. In thinking back on our conversation, the word “open” cropped up repeatedly as we were talking about the Center and its denizens. Members of the Martinos community exhibit a refreshing openness, not only to new ideas but to new people and new perspectives. And this openness reflects an inquisitiveness about the world at large – an inquisitiveness that, in the end, underlies all of the excellent work they do in the Center.

Oftentimes, researchers’ and staff members’ broadmindedness carries over into their extracurricular activities. This is one of my favorite traits of Martinos folk: so many of them maintain a diverse array of interests, evidencing both a passion for and an excellence in a range of pursuits. They are at the top of their game not only as scientists, but also as bagpipers and karate champions, flamenco dancers and roller derby competitors. In some cases, you can draw a straight line between their vocation (science) and their avocation. The Center’s Anastasia Yendiki once told me, for example, that she enjoys flamenco in part because it shares with her work developing data analysis software an important analytical component; in both, she said, “you have a set of constraints and within those you are trying to come up with something that is creative, elegant and effective.” The relationship between vocation and avocation may be less clearly defined in other cases, but it is no less durable or real. In any outside endeavor they pursue, Martinos folk are driven by the same energy and enthusiasm that animate their work within the Center.

Which brings me back to why Carol and I were chatting in the first place. When she retired, a colleague in the Center suggested I interview her to tap into the vast institutional memory she holds in her head. But in my initial discussions with her I was reminded of what a character she is in her own right – anyone who has interacted with her over the years will surely agree – and how she embodies many of the traits that make the Martinos Center such a fascinating place. She is undoubtedly open to new people and new perspectives; in the course of her work overseeing the assignment of visas, she has developed lifelong friendships with folks from all four corners of the globe. And she exhibits the same boundless curiosity as so many others in the Center. Did you know, for example, that Carol is a ‘Ricardian,’ a student of the murky history of England’s Richard III? Her journey into this rarefied realm began with the Beatles, who inspired in her a love of all things British, and has included an invitation to England to witness the reinternment of Richard’s remains. In this and in many other ways, she has demonstrated the sort of inquisitiveness about the world that has always been a hallmark of the Martinos community.

So Carol was both in good company and good company herself for the nearly three decades she was with the Center. And she is quick to tell you how truly lucky she feels. As she and I sat there, on a bench overlooking the harbor on a warm, early fall day in September, she reminisced about the company she kept for all those years. “The people at the Martinos Center are very special,” she said. “I wouldn’t have worked there as long as I did if I didn’t like the work environment, and the work environment was the people. Despite my occasional grumbling, I really enjoyed it. The Center is a wonderful place in which to work and the people I met there are going to be friends for life.”