The Secret Life of a Research Administrator | The Accidental Podcaster: Tuning in and Turning up
“The Secret Life of a Research Administrator” column is meant to facilitate more personal connections between SRAI members through the Catalyst newsletter. If you would like to share with the community or know of someone who will, please submit your article here.
To paraphrase Jane Austen, ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged, that most solitary researchers, must be in want of an engaged research administrator.’
Like so many other people who have come before me, I fell into this field of research administration and research communications by accident. And by extension, I stumbled into the world of podcasting by chance. But what a world both have opened up for me.
Full disclosure and to provide some background: I am a “lifer” at the University of Toronto. Having started my career path here in 1990, last year marked my 30th anniversary working at this prestigious institution in Canada. While earning an undergraduate degree at UofT in Cinema Studies and English Literature, I started working in communications and on a switchboard – back when there was such a thing as a switchboard – listening to people, figuring out what they wanted, and directing them to the appropriate department.
I acknowledge memory colors things, but I loved being a student. What I enjoyed most about my classes was, of course, writing my papers, because it became evident to me over the course of my studies that what I really wanted to do would involve writing and creativity, but also, I truly delighted in going to lectures and listening to the speakers and just soaking it all in – the ideas, the discussion, the thinking and debates. I would like to say that I frequently contributed to those debates but that would be a bogus representation on my part: ever the introvert, I liked observing and mulling things over on my subway ride home, maybe talking to a close friend later on about concepts discussed in class or things I had learned.
Once I completed my degree, I worked for a few years as an editorial coordinator at the University of Toronto Magazine, which is an alumni publication, and I learned even more about writing and communications, but also about precision, found in the process of fact-checking, proofreading, and copyediting, along with some design perspectives related to page layouts and themes. It was a great place to work, and I admired the team I was fortunate enough to be working with, but there wasn’t much opportunity to move around because we were a small unit of four people.
So, when an opportunity opened up in 2006 at UofT’s west campus – University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) – that was a mix of research administration and communications, I was so very intrigued. Thankfully, I got that job, landing in an office with my boss and (forever) mentor Devin Kreuger, who, to this day, I am so grateful for my luck in ending up under his wing: he has been the best support system and most influential, brilliant force I could have ever asked for.
In this combined and unique role, I have had the opportunity to review hundreds of grants over the years, found the most amazing colleagues along the way, celebrating various successes, and showcasing our stellar lineup of exceptional minds at UTM. The communications part of my role has included helping to coordinate and highlight recognition events, but mostly in the early days it was a fair amount of writing – for our website, annual report, press releases, and various UofT communications’ vehicles. It was the interviewing of faculty members that led me to think about incorporating some kind of audio in our portfolio. So many times, I would be transcribing an interview, and be struck by the same thought: wishing other people could hear exactly all the insightful and interesting things I was hearing; something that could not possibly be conveyed in a 700-word written profile.
As for my outside-work, podcast listening: it really started in 2013, and I was hooked by – what else? – the grandaddy of them all, This American Life, and specifically the episode on Harper High School, as my gateway to all other podcasts. Prior to that, I was a CBC-radio junkie, often listening while looking after my two young daughters, so podcasts just became an extension of my inner-listening life.
So, the wheels started turning, and around 2016, I started asking around UofT and beyond, but podcasts weren’t really a thing at institutions yet. I discovered one that lasted for about a year at the Faculty of Arts and Science at UofT and cold-called its creator, Barrett Hooper, to get whatever information I could from him: what equipment he used, how long does it take to put together an episode, his process and tools for editing, where to post it, pitfalls I might encounter, etc. He made the prospect of creating a podcast sound doable and his enthusiasm was infectious, but I was still daunted: I had zero audio background (whereas he had worked in radio previously), no audio-editing skills, and, let’s face it: I can ask questions behind the scenes, but I am no Ira Glass or Roman Mars. Still, I wanted this to happen, it was something different and creative, and I knew I had my boss’s backing: Devin was also a podcast fan, and we spent a lot of our breaks talking about podcasts, and would always finish our talks with ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a podcast here?’ I came up with a pitch for my Vice-Principal, Research, Professor Bryan Stewart, with the theme for the first three seasons planned out, and I told him how much the equipment was going to cost (~$700 CAD). Bryan said, “Carla, I trust you,” and Devin said, “If you fail, you will fail spectacularly.” So, essentially, I had their blessings but also some room to freefall.
I recorded my first interviews in late 2016, and launched VIEW to the U in January 2017 in time for UTM’s 50th-anniversary celebrations with 12 episodes: one a month with faculty members who had been at UTM for a while and could speak to its evolution as a research institution. This was followed by a full year in 2018 interviewing female faculty members for my “Women in Academia” theme, and then in 2019 “Global Perspectives,” which featured faculty members who have had impact around the world or do their fieldwork in other places outside of Canada. I keep research central to each episode but allow the themes to dictate some of the other issues we explore. I would be remiss here if I didn’t give props to my spouse Tim Lane, who provided technical support in my early podcasting days, as well as the theme music, and, with him being a musician and an audiophile, he helped me get up and running with figuring out how to edit and polish up the sound. By the fourth episode I was doing all the editing myself, but those first three episodes are the best sounding ones of the bunch.
I have thankfully been able to continue producing the podcast during lockdown and have also used this time to shape last year’s theme. In 2020 I recorded the podcast interviews remotely over Zoom while we were all sheltered in place, called the season “A check-in with profs,” to find out how they were managing in lockdown, how their research was changing, but also how their research might inform some of the COVID-related upheaval. For example, I spoke to an art historian about what art came out of previous health crises (his research has focused a lot on the AIDS epidemic) and what art we might expect to come from this one, and I also interviewed a behavioral researcher for his advice on talking to children about things like pandemics, germs, and not being able to see grandparents and friends in person.
Nearly five years of running this show, I now have 44 tracks under my belt, over 16,000 hits or listens from around the world – with one of the top countries tuning in being Ghana! – and I have never gotten sick of making this podcast. It’s partly that there is always something new and interesting to work on, but also speaks to some of the things mentioned earlier that are my passions: I am constantly learning; I write the intros, sometimes additionally writing an accompanying profile based on the interviews for our institutional website; I get to be a bit creative, deciding what to keep in and what to cut from the interview; and I get to listen to a range of fascinating people who, for the most part, I think, have truly enjoyed having their work featured in this unique way.
But my bottom line is that I will be forever thankful for this opportunity to venture out into areas that have become true passions – research communications and podcasting – and to have been entrusted to explore a platform in which I had previously no experience. I will admit, too, that even though I now host and create a podcast, my own podcast-listening practices have never waned (yet) either. I listen to podcasts all the time: while jogging around the trails in Mississauga, folding laundry, going for walks, doing dishes, making dinner; they are a constant companion. There is always so much to learn and be entertained by when I am engaging in routine tasks, and some shows have been a lifeline for getting out of my head during some of the difficult days we have all recently experienced.
While I find the podcast environment increasingly crowded, like with most streaming services we have at our leisure, we are spoiled for choices and there is truly something for everyone. I am certainly not under any delusions about my own output: my podcast isn’t the cleverest, overly sensational, or most poshly produced, and I have kept it simple for my production team of one, but it has served to help highlight colleagues I greatly admire, and also document some of the history of our researchers and research environment at UTM of which I am truly honored to be a serendipitous participant.
Submit your idea for the name of SRA International’s new Podcast! Submissions due by January 31! https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/39XTSFH
Authored by Carla DeMarco, Research Communications & Grants Manager
University of Toronto Mississauga