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Maintaining Our Foundation

Keeping our offices in tip-top shape.

White man with a trimmed red-and-white beard smiles broadly at the camera in front of a cosmic background. His straight brown hair is buzzed. He is wearing a navy suit jacket and a blue collared shirt with a nautical pattern.
Jonathan Cecil

Jonathan Cecil is as straightforward and knowledgeable as he is kind and assuring—all the qualities one might expect of a manager of the facilities team at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). Following college, he was naturally drawn to carpentry, which led to roles in construction, HVAC, plumbing, and property management. Here, he shares some of his professional experiences, and reflects on the welcoming and inspiring culture he is immersed in every day at the institute.

What types of property management roles did you hold before you joined the institute?

I was the director of facilities at the Museum of Industry, which sits on the waterfront in Baltimore, for several years. That position gave me hands-on experience with property management, budget development, and maintaining a strong staff and group of volunteers.

After that, I managed 14 buildings at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) in Maryland, which are spread across 72,000 acres [about 30,000 hectares]. I oversaw all of the buildings’ physical components and was the first point of contact for more than 100 tenants. Like APG’s name implies, it’s where the U.S. Army tests munitions. Occasionally, they would detonate large explosives, which shook my desk and rattled the office windows. I got used to it pretty quickly.

Before new buildings were erected, we brought in bomb sweeping crews. While I was there, we found two unexploded 500-pound bombs, which caused us to clear the base. They had to be excavated, taken to a pit, and detonated. These bombs had probably been buried for 40 years. The good news is that this event was an outlier. The vast majority of my responsibilities pertained to data center operations, managing heating and cooling, assessing physical security and access controls, and maintaining good relationships with tenants.

Why were you interested in the position on our facilities team?

STScI is close to where I live, which is on a boat in the Inner Harbor, and I was drawn by the institute’s mission. I wanted to be part of living history. When I joined in 2020, the James Webb Space Telescope hadn’t yet launched, and the Hubble Space Telescope’s images and science were front and center. I was excited to join, even if it was during the start of the pandemic, when we were figuring out how to navigate COVID-19’s challenges.

Most staff worked from home during the pandemic, but the facilities team was on site. What was your experience like?

The halls were practically empty. Only about a dozen people were in person for about a year and a half. It was a mix of facilities staff, mechanical engineers, guards, and a few administrators. We had strict protocols, including masking and proximity trackers. Staff I spoke with on video conferences seemed like they really missed being among their colleagues. It was quite nice to see everyone get the “fun” back once the strictest protocols were lifted and they could join us on site again.

Tell us about some of your projects and responsibilities.

I’m part of the team that oversees the day-to-day operations of our two office locations, including physical security, housekeeping, engineering, and assessing and maintaining the overall conditions of the grounds and buildings. We recently integrated our cameras and employee badge readers, and installed video-based intercoms at several locations. Now, we can see people approaching a locked door and if they hit a button for help, an employee can speak to them and, if needed, open a door no matter where our staff member is.

We’re also revamping the mass notification systems. Soon, colleagues will receive alerts we send via email to their office phones, as well as hear them broadcasted over our building speaker systems. What’s nice is that not only do we have preprogrammed messages for events like natural disasters and a call to shelter in place, we can also send customized instructions. In 2024, we’ll also completely reassess and upgrade our garage, ensuring it will last for decades to come, assess a building facade and window seals, and install a new universal power source for the chillers, which are our heating and cooling systems.

What do you enjoy about your position at STScI?

I have worked with many engineering groups and I can tell you that this is a top-notch team. Our staff do not need micromanaging. If I ask them to complete a task, which I usually don’t, there’s almost no occasion when I need to follow up. They know their jobs inside and out, along with the buildings’ structures and how they function. It’s fantastic to be a part of that.

Article updated February 2024.