Longtime UT laboratory safety expert Pam Koontz has retired.
Koontz was instrumental in inspecting all of UT’s 800-plus research labs and buildings to ensure that proper protocols were in place, practices that were critical to advancing the university’s research enterprise. Her last day at UT Environmental Health and Safety was June 30.
During her 30-year career at UT as a student and then a staff member, Koontz worked as a lab technician at the UT Graduate School of Medicine and in the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology before transitioning to lab safety work with EHS.
Her understanding of the inner workings of a laboratory, along with her eagle eye as a lab inspector, made her an asset to Environmental Health and Safety in her role as senior lab safety specialist, said Kim Harmon, EHS business coordinator, who has known Koontz for more than two decades.
“She was very knowledgeable, and that helped her know what to look for when inspecting a lab,” Harmon said. “If you’re safety first and have to learn the lab, there may still be a disconnect somewhere.”
A native of Chattanooga, Koontz had a desire to pursue animal science. But she was offered an opportunity in EHS about 20 years ago and loved the job so much that she never left, Harmon said.
For many years, Koontz was the sole lab safety specialist in the department and came to be trusted among researchers at the university. EHS now has five lab safety specialists.
“Pam was always one of those people who worked quietly but methodically. She was very steady in her approach,” said Brian Ranger, EHS program leader for Laboratory Safety Services. “When I was working as a lab technician, I really appreciated Pam’s constructive assistance. She was great at answering questions and helping us stay safe.”
Ranger met Koontz when he was in graduate school and she was a lab technician and they worked in the same building. They became peers when they both moved to EHS, and Ranger eventually became her program leader.
“Pam was instrumental in recruiting me into safety,” he said. “She talked about her experience and how well she liked it. She thought I would be a good candidate to lead the biosafety program.”
Koontz brought a lot of heart and warmth to the Environmental Health and Safety team, said EHS Director Sandra Prior.
Prior recalls interviewing for her position in 2018 and her first interaction with Koontz. “She was the most memorable person. She stopped to talk to me afterward and it was very inviting,” she said.
Prior said she was impressed with Koontz’s knowledge base and tenacity in her work. When faculty moved out of the Walters Life Sciences Building to a new campus facility, they left behind items that needed to be decontaminated. Prior assigned the cleanout to Koontz.
“She went from never having done that before to getting the contract set up, supervising the work, communicating with all the people involved, and keeping everyone up to date,” Prior said. “I was pleased with her follow-through. She did her work with a lot of thoughtfulness and kindness.”
Koontz’s love of all things safety may have begun in her youth. Her father, John Sargent, was a computer guru and in the 1960s, as part of a competition at work, created a slogan that said “Safety Begins Between the Ears.” The slogan won first place.
Koontz shared the photo of the winning slogan with Prior when she announced her retirement this spring.
To honor Koontz, Prior and the EHS team are ordering T-shirts with her father’s winning slogan. The slogan will kick off the new EHS 2020–21 academic year.