Spending 20 years in high-tech finance provides new Lab Chief Financial Officer Lori Zscherpel with a different perspective on how to support science. Her first experience with a national lab was at SLAC, where she learned that consensus-driven decision-making was critical. She quickly learned that explaining the why behind policies and changes led to a deeper understanding and forming teams that could focus on getting things done.
Lori, the second oldest of nine children, also learned how to get things done by babysitting her siblings. Each child had a chore lane, and hers were dishes. With 11 sets of dishes to wash after every meal, she had plenty of practice. While washing dishes, she didn’t dream of working in finance someday. She considered cultural geography as a major, but her parents couldn’t see the job potential in that, so she moved into what her parents thought practical: accounting.
That path has led her to the Lab, where she discusses timekeeping, support for science, and what has surprised her about working at the Lab.
Q: Why is your office focusing on timekeeping? Is it that critical to the work we do?
A: Timekeeping or labor costs are one of the key components of our cost, and timekeeping is how we share what we’re doing with our labor with our sponsors. We report that it took a certain level of effort to do this project, and this is what we delivered with that effort. Auditors care tremendously about timekeeping because there have been times when there have been inconsistencies, such as staff time needing to align with the work scope. It’s an area that auditors like to poke at because it’s the source for our second largest cost component. We have a higher level of scrutiny right now due to a DOE-wide change in how audits are performed across all national labs.
We are requiring a new timekeeping course that will help employees understand more about it and why it’s so important to do it properly. There are a few best practices, such as keeping track of your time each day throughout the pay period rather than trying to remember what you did every day when timecards are due.
Q: What surprised you about the Lab?
A: I spent time with the Lab’s website before coming to the Lab, so I knew stewardship was important. And since I’ve been here, the actions match the words about values and the importance of people to the Lab.
On the financial side, the cost structure differs from the structure we used at SLAC. Of course, we have the same expectations from DOE on spending money. In prior positions, I worked in high tech; there, we could provide perks to employees, like coffee and logo items. At a national lab, we are responsible for ensuring all funds are spent to advance the mission. So, swag is not something we can easily fund.
Q: How does the OCFO support science?
A: I think of the finance team as the engine that drives research and operations at the Lab. We are responsible for buying goods and services and managing funds. We ensure people get paid, things we need get purchased, and we negotiate contracts for new projects. It’s important that we work with researchers when they are defining a project to proactively identify potential issues and develop effective cost solutions.
These things are all core to any organization that occurs in the background to keep it running. We need the lights on and electricity bills paid to support our mission. We are all accountable for being good financial stewards at the Lab, but my team has extra work in those areas.