For several years, Joan Miller and her sister Cindy Holstein would carpool together to and from their jobs in the Krieger School's Biology Department at Johns Hopkins, chatting during the drive. At work, they'd often take their lunch breaks together.
Somehow, it could still feel like there wasn't enough time to catch up. "It'd be like, jeez, I haven't had a chance to talk to you about this," Miller says.
All told, the sisters have logged a collective 95 years working at Johns Hopkins, the bulk of those in significant roles supporting operations of the Biology Department. Miller—the elder sister by four years—worked as academic affairs administrator, overseeing all academic programs before retiring last September. Holstein has stayed on as an administrator, a jack-of-all-trades handling grants, compliance issues, facilities, HR matters, and more.
The two were raised in the Belair-Edison neighborhood of Baltimore, and both started jobs at Johns Hopkins very young, at the cusp of adolescence into adulthood. "We basically grew up there," Holstein says. They ended up as colleagues in 1977 and today recognize that working together for four decades was an exceptional situation.
Miller and Holstein recently got together for a Zoom conversation to talk about their overlapping paths at Hopkins and their bond as sisters.
How did you both get started at JHU?
Joan: One hundred years ago, I started as a clerk in the Registrar's Office, then worked as a secretary for a faculty member in the Biology Department, Gary Ackers, then doing protocol reviews of animal use in experiments. I liked working in academia because it felt like I never had to leave school, and at that time Hopkins paid in full for master's degrees—I got mine in liberal arts. I started working in admissions in the Bio Department, and later became in charge of all the academic programs.
Cindy: I worked in the federal government straight out of high school—I was bored out of my mind—then came to Hopkins as a medical secretary in the [School of Medicine's] Department of Pediatrics, then budget assistant in the Department of Pathology. I started in the Bio in August 1977 and told the chair who hired me, "Look, I'm gonna give you two years." But here I am, 45 years later. There's basically not one job or responsibility I haven't done for the department over the years.
What was Hopkins like in the 1970s?
Joan: It was like Woodstock—it was just … chill.
Cindy: It was smaller, it was fun, it was cool. It was like working but not working. We hung out with a lot of students, went to a lot of parties. I remember having a party at the house I shared with my roommate, and we invited every student in the Biology Department, over 100 people, and even the faculty. It was kind of like family.
What was it like working together as sisters?
Cindy: Joan and I both had our private offices across the end of the hall from each other. But we saw each other every day and ate lunch together a lot—that was our chance to talk about more personal stuff. And during the last few years, before COVID, when we drove home together, we could vent to each other about work. Then I'd get home and could decompress.
Joan: Our work didn't often directly coincide, but every time we'd have to do a training grant together, we'd usually fight a little. Cindy was in charge of the organization, and I usually had to prepare statistical reports. We'd get kind of snappy, and other people would be, like, scared—but everything was all fine between us, you know, just sister stuff.
Cindy: Everybody would be like "Oh, God, they're doing a training grant. Better stay away from the two of them."
Was it common knowledge that you were sisters?
Joan: Sometimes it took people a few years before discovering that. Many seemed to not know, because we have different last names. I remember in 1984, after our father died, one student gave me condolences, and he mentioned how odd it was that Cindy's father had passed at the same time. I said, "What cabbage leaf were you born under? We're sisters." He said, "I thought you were just really good friends." And I told him, "We're both."
How are you two the same and how are you different?
Cindy: We have the same music tastes. British rock, stuff from the '60s, and we love seeing live music. We're going to Paul McCartney soon. We like the same type of clothes. Joan got me hooked on HGTV. We love Jonathan in Farmhouse Flipper. Don't care for the Property Brothers at all.
As for different, I'm the Type A. And I'm more outgoing than Joan.
Joan: I'm a total introvert. But in my job, I was good at making students feel comfortable when they first got to Hopkins. I think because I never had kids, I just became maternal with them. It's a big leap to move to another state or city on your own, and I don't know how they do it. I'm protective of them.
Cindy: They're her kids. That's another difference—I have kids, who Joan is close to.
What was your relationship like growing up?
Cindy: We were already really close before working together. As teenagers we hung out and we'd do things together with Joan's friends.
Joan: We have one sister between us, who's 14 months younger than me. I'm used to having my sisters around me a lot.
What are some of your favorite memories from the Bio Department?
Cindy: I remember in 2004—the cicada summer—somehow a rumor got started that JHU Biology was paying money for every blue-eyed cicada that could be found. Our phones were ringing literally nonstop, and we couldn't get any work done. I had newspapers calling me from other countries. Even my daughter came home and said she'd heard it at her school.
We definitely have some stories from the '80s you probably couldn't print. The Christmas parties could get pretty wild.
Joan: I got another story. About 15 years ago, we had a recruitment event at Camden Yards, in a reception area overlooking the ball field. It had just snowed. One faculty member decided he was going to run out with a bunch of students and make snow angels. Once they did that … .
Cindy: The stadium authorities called the next day and said, "We have video." They tried to issue massive fines, but we ended up getting out of it.
What was the work experience like in COVID-19?
Joan: I have to say I missed the students more than anything. That's what I always liked best about my job—interacting with them. Some still come to see me from time to time, and we'll go to lunch. There's a coterie of people I want to see graduate in May.
Cindy: Joan was originally supposed to retire in summer 2020, and I told her, "Stick it out for one more year." The thought of having to train someone in her position virtually was—no.
For summer 2021, after vaccinations, we'd planned a big party for her retirement, but the delta variant came and we couldn't really do it. She'd been there 48 years, so it was a big deal. But we got special permission to use event space in Mudd Hall—for just 15 minutes! About 100 people showed up; there were presentations and gifts. We also put together a video with a lot of people from the past giving her messages.
Joan, what are your feelings about retiring?
Joan: It was a great place to work, with intelligent people. No one was an idiot. And we both appreciate working at a place where we were introduced to so many people from so many different backgrounds and countries.
And it was an incredible experience to be able to work with my sister. That's kind of why I stayed longer—because I wanted to see her every day.