Bioengineering’s Purtee honored with Elizabeth Gillis Award

Debra Purtee, executive administrator in the Department of Bioengineering, received the 2014 Elizabeth Gillis Award for Exemplary Service.

Debra Purtee

Elizabeth Gillis, left, and Rice President David Leebron, right, present the 2014 Elizabeth Gillis Award for Exemplary Service to bioengineering's Debra Purtee,

The award, named for the wife of former Rice President Malcolm Gillis, recognizes Rice staff members who, like Elizabeth Gillis herself, demonstrate unflagging commitment and service to the university.

Gillis and Rice President David Leebron presented Purtee with the award at the April 2 town hall meeting in Rice Memorial Center.

Purtee began her 20-year career at Rice in 1994 in the Computer Science Department as the senior department administrator. Moshe Vardi, the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor of Computational Engineering and professor of computer science who was chair of the department then, described her as “a fantastic administrator who professionally juggled numerous responsibilities: overseeing the department’s staff, managing the department budget, supporting the faculty in research proposal submission and seeing to the welfare of our graduate students.”

“Debra is always calm, professional and knowledgeable,” he said. “Undoubtedly, she is one of the best staff members we have at Rice.”

In 1996, Purtee was recruited to the newly created Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Studies as an assistant vice provost. In addition to managing the activities of the Graduate Studies Office, she worked closely with former Vice Provost Jordan Konisky to establish the division. This period included significant transition in the overall management and oversight of graduate studies, decentralization of graduate application and enrollment processes as well as budgets, and the division of graduate fellowships and other support from the Graduate Studies Office to the school deans.

“While I was at Rice, I considered her a partner and used her as a sounding board for almost every important decision,” Konisky said. “I sought her advice, always, on almost every matter.”

Two special projects Purtee undertook while in the Graduate Studies Office had a lasting impact on university life: the development of a program designed to create broader support for postdoctoral fellows, which led to a postdoc association and a new-hire orientation tailored to their needs, and the development of a manual that describes every administrative and procedural process that impacts the management and oversight of graduate studies.

In 2007, the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Studies transitioned into two divisions — Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies and the Office of Research. Purtee assisted the newly hired Vice Provost for Research Jim Coleman and was charged with the management of all supporting business activities of the division, including working closely with the directors and staff of the departments that reported to the vice provost to coordinate support for the growing multidisciplinary and multi-institutional efforts across campus. She was also instrumental in the oversight of special projects initiated by Coleman, including the development of the Virginia and L.E. Simmons Family Foundation grants, which support collaborative biomedical research by Rice, the Methodist Hospital Research Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital.

Purtee joined the Department of Bioengineering in 2011 as executive administrator, where she has initiated several projects that have been essential to maintaining and supporting its continued growth.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the Stanley C. Moore Professor and chair of the Department of Bioengineering and director of both Beyond Traditional Borders and Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies, wrote a letter nominating Purtee. “During my own career as a faculty member at Rice and at UT, I have not worked with a more dedicated, competent administrator by a wide margin,” Kortum said. “I could not do my job as department chair and director of Rice 360° without the calm, competent, forward-thinking leadership and support that Ms. Purtee provides. Moreover, she brings a wonderful sense of humor to the job! Her contributions to the Bioengineering Department have been extraordinary, and they are representative of the similarly excellent contributions she has made to every unit of Rice that she has been associated with.”

Purtee joins a distinguished list of recipients of the Elizabeth Gillis Award. To view a list of past recipients, visit


About Jennifer Evans

Jennifer Evans is a senior editor in the Rice's Office of Public Affairs.