In December, SWOG Cancer Research Network’s director of operations and protocols, Dana Sparks, hits her 30th anniversary.

When Dana started with our organization, as a protocol coordinator, we were still the Southwest Oncology Group. We were still based in Texas. We were running a lot of phase II, single-agent chemotherapy trials, the protocols revised via fax machine. Back then, in 1989, Chuck Coltman was our group chair, Samuel Broder was director of the National Cancer Institute, and Ronald Reagan was our president.

It goes without saying that a great deal has changed. But one thing holds steady: Dana Sparks. And if one person, other than Chuck Coltman, has shaped SWOG the most, it’s Dana.

Under her leadership, SWOG has launched hundreds of clinical trials, conducted thousands of audits, and enrolled hundreds of new member sites. Every Monday, she hosts our “triage” call where study concepts get vetted and voted on by senior leadership. After all this time, she still gets a lot of questions! Fridays, she is on our executive leadership or committee chair call. She has hired nearly every operations center staffer now on the job, and helped make our Young Investigator Training Course and SWOG Latin America Initiative the successes they are today.

I asked some colleagues to describe Dana. Here is Quality Assurance Manager Elaine Armstrong:

“She has a mind like a steel trap. She can remember information going back years. She always remains calm even during the craziest of times.”

And here are comments by Chief of Administration Nathan Eriksen:

“Dana’s contributions to SWOG are a real testament to her caring heart and tremendous competence. She is one of those rare humans that can grasp vast quantities of information and not be overwhelmed by it. She is a master synthesizer of information, which is a tremendous asset in an environment where everything is constantly changing, constantly in flux. But most importantly, in this complex environment that we work in, she never compromises on her personal values of caring and teaching and helping to find the right solutions to the problems that challenge us.”

Dana joined SWOG – and has stayed here – despite, and perhaps because of, the challenges inherent in clinical trial operations. The work melds the principles of science, medicine, law, and business and braids together protocol development, regulatory approval, industry partnerships, contracts and budgeting, as well as intensive management of people, data, and technology.

“I like to think through problems where there aren’t easy answers or obvious solutions,” she says. “What is the best way to do this, when it hasn’t been done before?”

This commitment to complexity – and creativity – is one reason why we’ve innovated for so long. But Dana’s exceptional institutional memory also often keeps us from making the same mistake twice. Next week, when we gather in Chicago, we’ll celebrate her with some reception surprises.

Then, and now, I offer my thanks. To me, Dana is SWOG. She knows the most and does the most. The organization would grind to a screeching halt without her. Everyone else, myself included, is replaceable. Not Dana.