Julie Cannefax is what HR folks like to call a self-starter. At 14, she worked part-time in Chapel Hill’s Belk department store. In high school, she drove a school bus. Long before she was earning a paycheck, her grandfather recruited her help in his one-acre garden in rural Chatham County, North Carolina, just south of Orange County.
By 11 she was turning the soil with a tractor. “That instilled in me a good work ethic,” said Cannefax. “I hated doing it then, but I wish I could go back now and work in that garden with him.”
Cannefax has come a long way since then, from helping grow, harvest and preserve vegetables for her family to serving as a pillar of the curriculum in toxicology and environmental medicine, or CiTEM, in the UNC School of Medicine. Cannefax began working at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1985. Since 2007, she has been the CiTEM’s business services coordinator and graduate student services manager.
Cannefax is the only administrative staff member for the CiTEM, a cross-disciplinary program that trains students and postdoctoral fellows to understand the links between the environment, human health and disease. It’s the kind of critical solo role that requires confidence and authority — the same stuff that once fueled an 11-year-old girl to operate a tractor and a high school student to command a bus full of students.
For her deliberate, calm and quiet leadership, the extraordinary skill she shares with her colleagues and for her deep and genuine concern for students and their well-being, Cannefax is one of six Carolina employees to win the 2020 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards.
Serving a multi-faceted field
As a curriculum — one of only three at UNC-Chapel Hill — rather than a department, the CiTEM doesn’t employ its own faculty. Instead, it draws faculty from five different schools and colleges across the University and two off-campus government agencies — the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, or NIEHS, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Curriculum graduates go on to become global public health leaders in academia, government and the private sector, addressing critical toxicological and environmental health issues.
“We’re not dealing with just an organ system or a disease or a field,” said CiTEM Director Ilona Jaspers. “Because our program is so broad, it takes someone like Julie who is able to find solutions for questions that have never been posed before.”
Finding those answers — even performing basic administrative tasks — is complicated by the curriculum’s structural complexity. Since students work across the University and in off-campus government labs, administration of every student in the CiTEM is different.
“Because the job changes and the program is so unique, we never know what the next task will be,” said Jaspers. “When Julie doesn’t know an answer, she is humble enough to say, ‘This is not something I can do, but I can find someone who can.’ And she never shies away from what others may perceive is not part of her job. I think that a lot of this stems from her background.”
Tar Heel upbringing
Cannefax said that she is Chatham born and Tar Heel bred. “The Tar Heel tradition was ingrained in me from a young age,” she said. She began visiting the Carolina campus at the age of 5, alongside her grandfather Silas Mann, who worked 30 years in the University’s printing department, and her mother, Cindy Cannefax, who spent 20 years as an administrative assistant in the University’s department of construction administration.
After graduating high school in Pittsboro, North Carolina, Cannefax spent a semester at Alamance Community College studying to be a medical secretary, but the program wasn’t the right fit, she said. She began working as a clerk-typist for Carolina’s Medical Faculty Practice Plan. “I was so eager to go ahead and start working full time,” said Cannefax. “What’s funny is that I’m doing now what I would have done had I stayed in college.” Probably more.
Jaspers said that it wasn’t until years after they started working together that she learned that Cannefax doesn’t have a college degree. “I was so surprised,” said Jaspers. “Julie is just so good at her job that I figured she must have a business degree or an accounting degree.”
Cannefax doesn’t have an accounting degree, but she did work for a bank for five years back in the 1990s — the only time in her 35-year career when she wasn’t employed by the University. She said those five years away made it clear that Carolina was her true home.
She returned to work as an office assistant for UNC Orthopaedics and rose through the administrative ranks in roles at the school of medicine’s allied health sciences department and the pharmacy school before joining the CiTEM in 2007.
Wearing two hats
Cannefax excels in a role that is two-fold, running both the business and student-services sides of the curriculum. As the only administrator in the program, Cannefax coordinates and assembles the voluminous amount of data, information and documents required for grant submissions and graduate-program reviews. She manages complex lab placements, coordinates meetings and retreats, promotes seminars and — in a curriculum spread across campus and into the Research Triangle Park — serves as liaison for communication, implementation and support.
On the student side, Cannefax works hard to make personal connections. “I have always taken the position that if this were my child, I would want somebody like myself to guide them, give them the assistance they need to make the transition and just make things easier for them,” said Cannefax, whose son, Cameron, is a 2019 graduate of UNC Greensboro.
She once drove a student to the airport so she wouldn’t miss her flight home to New Mexico. She helped another student in his final year of the program get tickets to the Duke-Carolina basketball game — no small feat. And she’s there to give advice to students who might be going through a hard time.
“Our graduate students are the lifeblood of the program, and Julie keeps the heart pumping,” said Rebecca Fry, CiTEM’s director of graduate studies.
When alumni return to the University, they often make a special effort to see Cannefax. “Julie receives holiday cards from alumni updating her on their lives,” said Jaspers. “When I see them at scientific meetings, they always ask, ‘How is Julie?’”
“It’s a testament to her reputation within the student community that many students give her a gift when they leave UNC or at the very least write her a thank you note for everything she has done to help them navigate through the system for their Ph.D. or post-doc,” said Jaspers. “It’s common for students to do that for their mentor but very unusual for the business administrative person.”
Cannefax credits her commitment to customer service to grandmother, Irene Mann. “She worked at Belk for 30 years and always told me that if employees aren’t nice, people won’t want to come to the store,” she said. “She instilled in me the importance of being nice to people and treating them with respect and the way you’d want them to treat you.”
Being awarded the Massey moved Cannefax to tears. “When I first got the letter from Chancellor Guskiewicz, I had to read it five times to make sure I read it right,” she said.
Although she is inching close to 30 years of service to the University, Cannefax doesn’t see retirement in her near future. “I know that my students and my awesome boss depend on me,” she said.
Jaspers will be glad to hear that. “In simple words, I could not (and would not) be the director of the CiTEM without Julie,” she said. “She is much more than the glue to this program — she’s the heart and soul.”