Grad student's capstone project wins Livingston Slone Award

by Tracy Kalytiak  |   

If your car's alternator fails, it's likely all you'll need to do is glide over to the side of the road, stop, and call a tow truck.

Hugh Denny's capstone project for his UAA ESPM master's degree recently won the inaugural Livingston Slone Applied Research in Health Project Management Award. Photo by Theodore Kincaid/UAA

Hugh Denny's capstone project for his UAA ESPM master's degree recently won the inaugural Livingston Slone Applied Research in Health Project Management Award. (Photo by Theodore Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage)

But what if a surgeon is cutting, cauterizing or performing some other delicate procedure on your heart or brain just as power to the operating room fails?

"You don't want that in a health care environment," said Hugh Denny, a UAA graduate student who is also chief facilities engineer for the Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC), a 150-bed, 400,000-square-foot, 17-year-old critical-care hospital. "Someone's life depends on that."

Splicing health care and engineering

Denny decides whether and when to repair or replace equipment needed in the electrical-distribution, medical gas, elevator and 72 other distinct systems that keep the ANMC campus functioning as it should.

The Engineering, Science and Project Management (ESPM) student recently devised an algorithm that uses objective factors like cost, risk, technology and environmental sustainability to track the long-term cost of owning building system equipment.

His project, which partially fulfills requirements for an ESPM master's degree, won Livingston Slone's inaugural Livingston Slone Applied Research in Health Project Management Award, intended to foster interdisciplinary research focused on health care facility projects and systems that improve the health of Alaskans.

Livingston Slone, launched in 1975, provides project management, civil engineering, architecture, planning and interior design services to public, private and nonprofit clients. Its projects at UAA include the 63,500-square-foot Health Sciences Building, the 81,000-square-foot Engineering & Industry Building (scheduled to open in the fall of 2015) and the upcoming Health Campus Pedestrian Bridge, which will span Providence Drive and link those two buildings.

"[Livingston Slone] initiated this award specifically to go to a student or team of students doing their master's capstone projects on project management of health care facilities," said LuAnn Piccard, ESPM department chair. "That was really what they were looking for. They believe the value of the facility isn't just the place, but how it's designed on behalf of the people who are ultimately going to be using it."

Piccard and Rhonda Johnson-director of UAA's Master of Public Health program-brainstormed with Tom Livingston and Don Slone and decided the award could go either to an individual student in ESPM or MPH working on a capstone project, or to a cross-disciplinary team of students.

"Rhonda and I looked at student projects coming from our areas and Hugh Denny seemed to be a really good fit for that," she said.

Creating an adaptable solution

Denny's project helps resolve one of the critical challenges involved in deciding whether to replace equipment-competition for limited funds.

"Any organization has to try to figure out where you need to put those funds best," he said. "Why should you be funded? Why should this particular piece of your request be funded? The stronger your argument, the better."

Denny said his algorithm can be adapted to function in other industries outside health care. He worked on it with guidance from Piccard, Dr. Hsueh-Ming Wang, Michael Fisher and his mentor, Robert Wilson, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium's director of facilities service.

"The first test will be nine or 10 months from now, when I have to put together a capital request for projects," Denny said. "I'll use this tool to say this is my list of projects I want to replace and this is why I want to replace them, and see how the organization reacts to that."

In the past, Denny said, requests for capital replacement were based solely on one criterion. "Or by using anecdotal information-'Yep, I need a new such and such because this one's about to break,'" he said. "I think one of the big selling points for me to the organization is, when I go through the defense process, this is the system I need to replace and why, to be able to show them I have considered all these factors-cost, risk, technology, environmental sustainability."

Finding the right balance

Denny concocted his algorithm in his home office, after work, during a span of more than 15 months.

"I had all my references laid out all across the office-in sort of a meticulous manner where they're all labeled one through whatever-just all laid out on the floor everywhere," he said. "Then I had diagrams and notes and scratchpads all posted around the wall."

Denny said his ultimate goal was to be able to replace the right equipment at the right time at the right price.

"In an environment like health care, you don't wait for things to break, but there was no system to prioritize," he said. "That was the genesis of my project. Early on, I knew I wanted to do something relative to that."

Raised in Alaska

Denny was born into the health care vocation. His father, an anesthesiologist, was also a U.S. Public Health Service officer, and his mother was a registered nurse.

The couple lived in east Tennessee until 1962, when they drove to Anchorage and then flew to Bethel to work at the hospital there. Denny's older sister was born two years later, just after the 1964 quake.

"Back then, Bethel only had about 900 people and supplies came once a year, mail order, so you had to plan ahead," Denny said. "The environment was so rough, far away."

Denny's family spent time not only in Bethel, but in Dillingham, Naknek and Kodiak, before moving to Anchorage in 1972.

Denny grew up in Anchorage, attending Service High School. He began working for the U.S. Public Health Service in 1993 and received his bachelor's degree at UAA, in civil engineering, in 1999. He worked full time in water and sewage treatment plants in Western Alaska, based in Bethel but traveling to smaller villages in that town's orbit. In 2008, Denny began working for ANMC as its assistant facilities engineer and then became its chief facilities engineer.

"I decided it was time to go back and finish my master's," Denny said.

Growing an education

Engineering project management fit well with the tasks Denny was accomplishing at ANMC.

"From a practical standpoint, there are a lot of tools out there that I'm sure I can learn and apply to what I'm doing," he said. "That's a win-win situation-I get further education and the organization I work for gets more benefit out of it. My mentor, Robert Wilson, said I should get my master's not just as a check box but because of true value. I knew I was always going to do that. It's the educational level I was expecting of myself."

Denny examined a variety of master's degree programs, including some online options, and selected UAA.

"It made a lot of sense," he said. "My experience with UAA as an undergraduate was very positive. The College of Engineering is a very solid program and it's right here in town, there's a lot of resources right here in town. That's why I chose UAA, chose to go back."

Denny said his wife and children supported the work he did in his home office after coming home from his ANMC office.

His wife works full time and attends UAA as well-she's working on her bachelor's degree in psychology-and the couple have four children.

"So we have a 14-year-old, a 15-year-old, me and my wife all going to school," Denny said. "Nobody cared that I was in the office working on my own schoolwork because so was my wife, and so was my son. It was kind of fun. I think it was neat for them to see their parents at their age still in college, still educating themselves."

Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement

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