Category Archives: Blog

Courtside Fun: An Evening at the Citi Open

Stan Wawrinka (Switzerland) and Donald Young (U.S.)

On July 31, Akoyans in the Washington, DC, area enjoyed an evening of camaraderie, food, and professional tennis at the 2018 Citi Open. The previous night’s wet weather became our boon: we had the opportunity to watch three-time grand slam champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland take on Donald Young of the U.S. in a match that had been postponed by rain. Young bested Wawrinka in three sets, which included two tie-breaks. Akoya’s tennis aficionados deemed the action on the court excellent.

Celebrating its 50th year, the Citi Open benefits the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, of which Akoya is a proud supporter.

Once a Marine, Always a Marine

Wearing his Dress Blue-Whites, Neal Fisher awaits giving a speech at a Memorial Day celebration in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands during his final year in the Marine Corps.

Our Akoya Military Health System team wouldn’t be complete without veterans, whose unique perspectives on military life and operations are a crucial component of our success in working with the Department of Defense’s Defense Health Agency (DHA). This month, in recognition of Veterans Day, we will profile Akoyans who have served our country.

Neal Fisher joined our team in 2015 and writes and implements communications plans for DHA’s communications shop.

Neal’s military story started in 1992, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves. He spent five years as a member of Company A, 863rd Engineer Battalion in Kankakee, Illinois, and attained the rank of Staff Sergeant before requesting an inter-service transfer to the active duty Marine Corps and Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. He was commissioned in April 1998 and was selected to serve as a Field Artillery Officer following his completion of The Basic School in October 1998.

In 2001, the Marine Corps offered Neal a tour of duty in Public Affairs. “I thought Public Affairs/Communications would be a relaxing tour of duty after three hard years in artillery,” he says. Then 9/11 happened.

“After receiving orders to the Pentagon, and then experiencing the terrorist attack on September 11 from just 25 miles away at the Defense Information School, my misguided impression of Public Affairs as an easy job changed very quickly,” Neal says. 

Neal returned to artillery after his time as a public affairs officer at the Pentagon and says that he was fortunate to experience “the challenge and honor” of commanding a field artillery battery, leading 155 Marines for 14 months.

But Neal’s interest in public affairs never waned. “Though I considered commanding Marines the highlight of my military career, the daily challenge of public affairs and communicating with the public on behalf of the Marine Corps was unmatched,” he says. “In 2007, I committed to Public Affairs full time, relinquishing Field Artillery as my primary specialty.”

In 2015, Neal left the Marines with the goal of becoming a civilian public affairs professional. Someone directed him to Akoya two weeks after he and his family moved to northern Virginia, where his wife Yvonne had accepted a new job.

Neal appreciates the challenge and reward of working in dynamic and highly visible communications environments. “I have always loved the adrenaline rush of responding to a crisis situation, or the challenge of developing a communication plan that immediately produces ‘something,’” he says.

Working for DHA has been an enriching opportunity for Neal. While his military experience informs how he communicates with the military community and TRICARE beneficiaries, he had never previously worked in military medicine. Joining the Washington, DC, chapter of the American College of Healthcare Executives helped him gain a different perspective on healthcare management and administration, and he credits Yvonne, a healthcare administrator, with helping him understand the language and mindset of healthcare outside of the military. “This has been very valuable in working the accounts I’ve been assigned here in the DHA Communications Division,” he says.

Outside of the office, Neal is an avid motorcyclist. He and Yvonne both have their own Harley-Davidsons and they are members of the Harley Owners Group (HOG). They also rode with Ma’Gachong, a  motorcycle club for married couples, when they lived in Guam. Neal recommends riding along the southern stretch of Route 1 in Guam, between the villages of Agat and Talofofo, for its amazing views of mountains and the ocean.

Neal is the proud father of two teenage sons, three adult stepchildren, and two adopted daughters, ages 11 and 7, whom he and Yvonne fostered while stationed in Guam. And of course, Neal is “once a Marine, always a Marine.”

Neal and his wife Yvonne at Talofofo Falls Park in Guam

Communications Consulting: 3 Things Not to Do

Something about spring reminds me of The Incident at CIA Headquarters, which got me thinking about the adventures I’ve had at Akoya while supporting our clients’ communications needs. My cautionary tales could save a career or even a life. Maybe yours.

exit sign for CIA Headquarters
Image courtesy of Fletcher6, Wikipedia Commons

Lesson 1: Beware food courts, especially the quiche.

During an aeronautics conference for NASA that Akoya managed, my co-worker Wendy and I crossed Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta with our client, Diane. At a rundown mall, Diane and Wendy made fun of me for not trying the quiche at the food court. Instead I got Chinese and we sat and ate and they remarked how good the quiche was and why wouldn’t I try it? A few hours later, Wendy grew queasy, and rushed off. Then Diane did the same, and I was left to soldier on alone. (Cosmic Lesson for them: Don’t make fun of Robert.)

Lesson 2: Don’t walk out of your client’s hotel room at 7:30 A.M.

Diane was sick all night with food poisoning, which I learned when she called me at 6:30 A.M. and with raspy voice asked for ginger ale. I scavenged until I found some and hurried to her room to find her dressed in a terry robe and looking, well, forlorn. I commiserated with her for a few minutes and then she walked me to the door and I exited … directly into a high-ranking NASA official, who looked at me, and at bed-headed Diane in her robe, and gave the ol’ “Well, surprise, surprise” look that you’d expect at such a moment. For the record, it was an errand of mercy.

Lesson 3: When you’re headed to the FHWA in McLean, Virginia, don’t turn too soon.

On a bright spring day soon after I started at Akoya, our CCO Nancy and I had driven down from Pittsburgh to meet with clients at the Federal Highway Research Center. As I turned off the GW Parkway there was a moment of confusion about whether to take the first or second right. Nancy said, “This is it!” So I turned, and knew at once this wasn’t it. We were in a stream of cars heading to CIA Headquarters. A sign at a checkpoint ordered guests to stop while cars with credentials sped on by. A stern voice on an intercom said, “Can I help you?” I stammered, “Wrong turn … big mistake … turn around?” The voice said to proceed to the security station where I was brought in like they park the jets at the airport, and three guards held automatic weapons on the contractors from Pittsburgh. Personally I thought the German shepherd unnecessary. We were detained 30 long minutes while they checked our driver’s licenses and my PA car registration. Finally the guard cleared us … the delay was caused by my just-expired registration sticker. (Flash back to a week earlier, telling my wife: Registration sticker? Yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it.) At last we breathed free air at Federal Highway, where we related the tale to our client. He said, “I could’ve told you—never take the first right off the GW Parkway.” Lesson learned.

Corollary Lesson for PA residents: Always affix your registration sticker to your PA license plate as soon as it arrives.

Toots & Sophie: A Holiday Adventure

Move over Charlie Brown. Move over Ralphie and Randy. There’s a new holiday classic in town. Or should we say, in tahn. In honor of our base of operations in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we present Toots and Sophie, two hometahn gals, in their first video adventure written, produced, and directed by Akoya and starring our very own Amy (as Toots) and Sophie (as herself). Rich Schutte was the director of photography and dialogue coach. We hope you enjoy our three minutes of yuletide cheer, Pittsburgh-style.

Oh Deer

My brothers piled into the car with our opened gifts and Ziploc bags of mashed potatoes and Christmas cookies. I climbed into the driver’s seat, waved bye to grandma, and we started for home.

Road: desolate. High beams: on, and in the snow-speckled darkness they didn’t seem to make a difference. I still saw the full-racked buck the same way. We were in a strange snowglobe with the snow on the outside and the deer looking in.

Swerve. Impact. Hazard lights.

I found the buck laying peacefully next to pieces of the car. Wait a minute. Maybe it was whiplash or too much turkey, but this looked like Comet. Or Cupid. Or Donner. Or Blitzen. Whoever it was, I knew there had to be serious repercussions for hitting a Reindeer, especially on Christmas day.

My brothers assessed the damage. After some debate, we all agreed that the car was fit to drive home. That’s when I saw a pickup truck pull over. A man got out and walked across the road.

He walked toward us, as if he knew what had happened. Oh heavens. He knew. He knew what I did. It was pretty obvious what had happened—I was cruising home and murdered one of Santa’s reindeer.

The man stopped by our car. He reached down toward the deer. That’s when I realized he didn’t stop out of concern for us. He wanted the deer I had done him the favor of, uh, making available. Evidently no self-respecting western Pennsylvanian hunter could pass up an opportunity to harvest, not a reindeer, but a white-tailed stag with an enviable rack.

I was relieved that someone else was going to be responsible for the victim. I mean, it still could’ve been Blitzen (or Prancer… it’s not like they carry ID). But if it was, at least I knew the presents had already been delivered the night before.

Making the Season Bright

Every year, I haul out the holiday lights from their peaceful slumber. Part of the process has always been to plug ‘em in and see if they still work—inside, before braving the cold. Invariably, half—just half—of the old strings of incandescent mini-lights would work consistently. As a result, more and more strands were ending up in a landfill until I made the change to LEDs about three years ago. Now, the colors are brighter and the whites are warmer. LEDs are more efficient, too. But the best part is that, so far, every strand I bought lights up completely. I’m not adding to the landfill, I can string more lights end to end, and I’m saving energy. I’m also adding more sparkle to the season.

Is Santa Real?

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately; my kids are growing too fast. The other day my daughter Jordyn and I were out, and I got to thinking about the day she asked me that dreaded question feared by all parents around the holidays: “Is Santa real?”

This question came as we walked around a department store and ooh’d and aah’d over the Christmas displays. I knew this was a test! I was being asked by my beyond-her-years daughter who already knew the answer! So, in the most casual way I could muster, I replied with that standard response I believe (or hope) most parents use when caught unprepared: “What do you think?”

“I think it’s you and Dad,” she answered. “All the kids say so, and the thought of flying reindeer is just a little too far-fetched to believe.”

Willing myself not to cry at that moment, I told her the truth: Yes, her parents may eat the cookies and leave the presents, but it’s Believing that’s the special part of Christmas. It’s Believing that puts the excitement into the preparation, the anticipation of Christmas morning, and the joy that’s shared all day long. That’s Christmas. As soon as she was satisfied with our discussion, she looked at me and asked, “Does this mean there’s no tooth fairy either?”

Now that Adam, my baby, is at that same age now, it’s sad to think I’ll be having this conversation again soon. It takes away that innocent, full-of-wonder part of the season that I find myself desperately trying to hold onto.

Editor’s Note to Santa: The opinions of this writer are not necessarily shared by the Nitty Gritty.

Sisyphean, But not for Sissies

Pittsburgh has a lot of weird and wonderful things going for it, including an annual event called the “Dirty Dozen” that takes place the Saturday after Thanksgiving. For the past 29 years, a growing number of recreational cyclists have convened to conquer the steepest hills in and around the city—enduring inclement weather and insane terrain in a pure test of physical and mental prowess.


Photo courtesy of Jason Kambitsis, Wired Magazine

For the record, I am not one of these cyclists. I am, however, married to one, which marginally qualifies me to write this article, and I can tell it to you straight: the Dirty Dozen is no joke. But it is, technically, a race, which means that many of the cyclists try to scale these hills as fast as they can—to which I can only reply, “?!?!?!”

Over the course of about 6 hours, participants ride well over 50 miles as they travel from hill to hill and challenge themselves on grades that can approach 37 percent. I can only equate this to trying to drive my 11-year-old, 4-cylinder Honda Civic up a brick wall, which is what Hill #8—Sycamore Street—felt like last year when I delivered a can of Coke and a Clif bar to my husband, Jonathan. For a hot minute I thought maybe I wouldn’t make it, and I would need that Coke and Clif bar for sustenance until someone realized I was missing and the search party found my car tipped over at the bottom of Sycamore. I say “someone” because Jonathan would simply be too exhausted to notice my absence until arising arthritically from his post-DD slumber three days later.

I digress.

As the day progresses, and the riders’ quads quiver and lungs reach near explosion, a spectator like me can’t help but give mad props to any and all with the cojones to scale the Dirty Dozen—or even to try. Fully subscribing to the “no guts, no glory” motto, these cyclists are proof that, like in business, we simply don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re faced with adversity, and more often than not, we are happily surprised by the results—even if we stumble once or twice on the ascent.

Of course, it never hurts to have a little preparation behind you, too. Last year, Jonathan and his friends started training in September just to get through these few November hours, and they’re all experienced riders. So unless you just won the King of the Mountains jersey in the Tour de France, you may want to watch from the sidelines first. Because the Dirty Dozen is a serious mission, and only the strong survive. They may puke once or twice along the way. . . but they survive.

Pittsburgh public television legend Rick Sebak profiled the Dirty Dozen in 2010. Skip ahead to minute 19 for Hill #9—Canton Avenue—to capture the true essence of the Dirty Dozen. (That’s Jonathan clipping out at 20:48 and shattering the dreams of the guy behind him.)

Schlepping the Southside Slopes

U.S. cities with the most public stairways
(100 steps or more each):

1. Pittsburgh, PA (117)
2. Los Angeles, CA (89)
3. Seattle, WA (83)
4. San Francisco, CA (79)

Pittsburgh’s neighborhood boundaries might well have been scribbled out by a toddler, tracing meandering rivers, rail lines, cliff sides, and rolling hills. No wonder most early immigrants dug in deep and stayed put – until they had to get to work. Now tourist attractions, Pittsburgh’s two remaining inclined railways (at least fifteen operated circa 1900) once shuttled steelworkers from their homes on the hillsides to the mills below during the era of Big Steel. Many workers walked when possible, resorting to the steep public stairways – over 700 in all – dotting the city’s slopes.

Nineteen sets of steps used by steelworkers are within walking distance of Akoya’s offices on the Southside, so what could be a better lunch break in autumn than a brisk climb to a new vista? We plan to take on a different set of Southside steps as often as possible, until we’ve conquered all, using the maps at communitywalk.com.

Here are a few of our first photos.

The Art of Brewing at Home

Since moving to Pittsburgh and patronizing fantastic local craft breweries as well as sampling outstanding imports from countries like Germany and Belgium, I have come to enjoy beer in the way others enjoy fine wines. Perhaps it was inevitable that I would be drawn to homebrewing. If you are curious about trying it yourself, here is a rundown of my forays into the art and science of brewing.

The first beer I brewed was a Belgian wit; I used a “no-boil kit” in which the wort—the mixture of malts and adjuncts that eventually ferments into beer—was already created and sold to me in cans. All I had to do was add water and yeast, then wait. While easy and fun, it was not true homebrewing; I had very little control over the strength of the beer, the types of hops being used, and the strains of yeast. The science was already done. Like a paint-by-numbers creation, no-boil homebrews can be a great place to start but are not something you would show to your friends as an example of your artistic skill.

After a year or two, I bought a full set of supplies (a brewing vessel, a bottle capper, some measuring devices, and other such items) and prepared for my first real homebrew. Again, I bought a kit with a recipe, but the wort had to be created from scratch this time. I steeped my grains, mixed in liquid malt, added the hops, and timed my boil to ensure the mixture was properly prepared for fermentation. Three weeks later, I had two cases of a homebew Oatmeal stout. It wasn’t fantastic, but friends and family enjoyed every last bottle.

I have done three batches since then, all of different styles: a Belgian Strong Pale Ale, an Imperial Stout, and, my most recent composition, a Bavarian Dunkelweizen. All are ales, which require a week or two for one fermentation cycle at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, with the yeast fermenting from the top of the beer down. In contrast, lagers require colder temperatures and longer fermentation periods, with the yeast fermenting from the bottom up. To do lagers (eventually), I will need a refrigerator devoted to nothing but brewing.

For now, I am very satisfied with ales. It is fun to try to recreate the tastes and appearances of some favorite beers while also adding my own little touch. For my Dunkelweizen—a German or Bavarian ale that uses wheat along with or in place of barley as the main malt—I created an experimental recipe. Here is a step-by-step view of the two-week process , with a few recipe secrets.

Homebrewing requires a lot of patience, but pays off when you open the first bottle of a new batch and find it to your liking. Depending on the strength, your beer can be stored for months or years. Because a small amount of yeast remains in suspension in homebrewed ales, it is a “live beer” and its taste can evolve over time. Very strong beers can change drastically over the course of a few years. So I try to put aside a few bottles of each batch, letting it mature (fingers crossed) like a fine vintage.

Peace Corps Service as a “50+” Volunteer

Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) from 2004 to 2006 was the experience of a lifetime—challenging, surprising, and inspiring. After receiving my assignment to Guatemala as a Municipal Development volunteer, my first question was “Where’s Guatemala?” I soon learned it is a Central American democracy, located directly below Mexico and also bordered by Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, with coastal areas on the Caribbean and Pacific.

As I began my service in May 2004, I was especially excited to be included in the 10 percent of “50+” volunteers among thousands of PCVs worldwide. Most PCVs are in their early 20s, fresh from college and pre-career/family. With my three daughters grown and more than 30 years of satisfying work behind me, the anxieties of “What will I do with my life?” were resolved. I was ready for some adventure! Training for service took place over three months, at an in-country facility near Antigua, Guatemala. Even though the next oldest trainee was in his early 30s, PC service proved to be such a unique bonding experience that volunteers younger than my own adult daughters ultimately became, and remain, among my closest friends.

In my class of 28, volunteers were assigned to work in four programs: municipalities, agroforestry, rural youth, and community “technology” projects (which in Guatemala meant building stoves, constructing wells, and repairing bridges). Training – eight hours a day Monday through Friday and a half day on Saturdays – encompassed improving our Spanish language skills, preparing for our responsibilities within our specific program areas, and understanding and appreciating the cultural realities of our prospective site assignments. We each lived with a host family, conversing in Spanish, sharing meals, and swapping stories of Guatemala and home.

The mission of the Peace Corps is threefold: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.  We learned that democracy had come to Guatemala only recently, following a very long and bloody civil war. Self-governance and elections were new developments, and the “Munis,” as those of us in the Municipal Development program were called, were responsible for working with newly elected officials in our community’s towns and villages, explaining democratic basics including running meetings, setting agendas, prioritizing community needs, and raising funds to meet those needs.

Once we completed our training, we were sworn in as official “PCVs” by the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala and received our site assignments. I was assigned to the city of Tecpán, a proud Mayan community in the country’s Central Highlands, in the “Departamento” (state) of Chimaltenango. We had to get to our sites on our own, make our own living arrangements, and outfit our homes from small “start-up” stipends. Based on our location, each of us then received a small monthly allowance to cover all needs at very basic levels.

In such a poor country, our expenses were very low, and we lived simply, as the Guatemalans do. Farmers’ markets in every community offered wonderful fresh vegetables and fruit for little cost, along with beautiful handmade blankets, rugs, and other necessities.  Buying clothing was easy, too – throughout the country, vast parking lots host vendors at “Ropa” markets.  “Ropa” is Spanish for clothing, but in this case “Ropa” meant American clothing donated to U.S. charities in amounts so mind-boggling that it is stored in huge shipping containers and sold at very low cost to other countries. Going to the Ropa markets in Guatemala certainly gave me a new sense of how much we have and discard in our country (not to mention how many dumb T-shirt slogans there are!). As a Pittsburgher, though, it was always fun to locate Steelers and Pirates gear to wear!

In Tecpán, I worked in the office of community development in the “Municipalidad” (municipality) building, under the supervision of two Guatemalan officials. Each “aldea” (village) surrounding the central town had a council of elected representatives and we worked closely with these groups in training, helping assess and prioritize village needs, and researching funding possibilities.

Tecpán is a predominantly Mayan community known as the “first capital of Guatemala.” More than 90 percent of the residents are descendants of the Kaqchikel Mayan people. The remains of their pre-16th century capital city, Iximché – the center of pre-Spanish Mayan culture – are nearby; it’s a peaceful and mysterious site that local families and tourists regularly visit to picnic, explore, and ponder this lost civilization in the hills of Guatemala.

During service, each PCV is encouraged to develop an independent “secondary” project, so I began networking with a group of Mayan women in the aldea of San Lorenzo who wanted to start a business to help raise funds for their families. We first considered chickens or woven items, but the women were seeking something new and different, so ultimately they chose the “Proyecto de Hongos” – the Mushroom Project. Mushrooms are readily available in the wild, in season, in Guatemala, but domestic cultivation is a new concept that the University of Guatemala has been promoting, and they provided assistance to residents interested in exploring this possibility. We submitted a proposal for funding to USAID and secured a grant of $3,000 to build an “invernadero” (greenhouse) in which to cultivate oyster mushrooms, with the labor and love of the women as the key ingredient for success.

Peace Corps Volunteers in other programs, including business development and marketing, joined me in providing training to the women on aspects of creating and running a successful enterprise, and construction began on the invernadero amid much anticipation and excitement.

The opening ceremonies, in March 2006, were a highlight of my years of service. I had never in my life been part of the creation of an actual building before! The women of the community who played central roles were prominently featured, making speeches (very unusual in this historically macho Central American culture) and preparing a wonderful meal shared by all.

I especially treasure the beautiful, hand-stitched needlework “recuerdo” I received that day, presented to me in a handcrafted wooden frame. It states:  “La Asociacion San Lorenzo Agradece a: Bette Hughes por su apoyo en el Proyecto de HONGOS Tecpán G.  15-03-06.” It hangs in my office today, reminding me daily of the life-changing and soul-enriching years when I was privileged to represent our country as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Peace Corps Service www.peacecorps.gov.