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The Secret Life of a Research Administrator | Sandra Justice

By SRAI News posted 10-13-2021 02:24 PM


The Secret Life of a Research Administrator | Sandra Justice

“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. 

As campus came back to life and we gathered again – so came the intros to new colleagues.  The Catalyst’s Tyler Tulloch caught up with Sandra (Sandy) Justice, Associate Director of Research at the University of South Florida, to learn about writing comedy with a local theater group for this month’s Secret Life of a Research Administrator. 

Tyler Tulloch, Catalyst: How did you get started in comedy?

Sandy Justice: Introductions, the conversation starter or ice breaker.  That ‘on the spot’ moment when we are called upon to share who we are and what we did before we landed in higher education. Before I worked at the University of South Florida, I wrote a little comedy for a local black box theatre group called Public Domain. The group was named Public Domain because of our appreciation for classic scripts, which we drew from for inspiration. 

At the core of this merry troupe were two dynamic and funny men, Bill Martinez and Sean Sanczel, both brilliant comedic writers who taught me much about the creative writing process and the synergy of group think. Five nights a week, Bill and Sean performed as Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, with the Animal Spirits R&B band. After the gig, we would gather at all-night diners to brainstorm SNL-style skits for the weekly Public Domain performances.  

Like my life in research administration, I never dreamed that I would find myself working with thespians to pull together weekly situational comedy for a black box theater. 

Tyler Tulloch, Catalyst: What did you enjoy most about it?

Sandy Justice: The scripts were one part of the journey – and every week was an adventure. The troupe did everything, from costumes and set design, to fundraising with spray painted t-shirts. We all want to make this planet a better place. On stage, comedians can use their platform to track some pretty important topics – from gender roles to a living wage – and address it with clever satire.  

No need to wait months for peer review; you knew right then and there when the material connected with the audience. Off stage, the comradery was tight and the synergy ideal for being creative. If you find yourself on a collaborative team with that perfect combination of personality, ambition and expertise, , hold on to it!  

Tyler Tulloch, Catalyst: A significant growth/learning experience you gained from comedy

Sandy Justice: In preparation of this article, I reflected on the years I worked with comedians and how this informed the way I work – specifically, finding the fun! Being backstage, or at the creators' table, you see the raw talent and can be inspired by their energy. If you allow the creativity sparks to fly with your friends, the resultant collective energy and ideas can be amazing! 

There is tremendous intellectual and cultural value in the creative arts. Although the Public Domain and Animal Spirits R&B Showband have since dispersed, the experience helped me grow as a person and shaped so much of who I am today. Grant writing, like comedy, requires clarity, brevity, and impact.  When writing, I focus on my audience. Similar to grant writing, there is a cadence and tone to comedic writing, striking that balance with your audience that acknowledges their intelligence and piques their interest. 

Finding Parallels

The art and architecture of comedy
The art and architecture of grantsmanship
-I developed a love and knack for the rhythm of good writing.

Riffing with comedians over milkshakes
Riffing with design creatives at a whiteboard

Tyler Tulloch, Catalyst
: Your most memorable experience

Sandy Justice: My career in research administration – a long and winding road. As you can imagine, students often go to college to be a doctor, engineer or a lawyer. Saying, ‘I want a field in research’ invokes images of people in lab coats and leaning over microscopes. 

Do you have any job titles that are so vague that you can’t really tell what they do?  I took a spin on the Jeff Foxworthy approach, “You might be a redneck if…” zinger jokes. Written for all those whose title is coordinator, analyst, program assistant, etc.

  • If you spend an hour explaining cost share or indirect costs, you might be a research administrator.
  • If your afternoon is dedicated to uploading to FastLane, you might be a research administrator.
  • If you ever ducked out of a conference to help get a grant submitted on time, you might be a research administrator

Tyler Tulloch, Catalyst: How comedy helps you in your personal life and your career as a research administrator

Sandy Justice: A good comedian knows how to read the room, and when to pivot when the joke does not land as expected. Change is constant in research administration. When designing a grantsmanship presentation, I aim to keep the audience engaged with dynamic slides and entertaining activities. At an SRAI half-day workshop on Compelling and Persuasive Grants, the audience connected around a $100,000 Pyramid (like the gameshow) activity. 

Now, I lead the Summer Grant Writing Workshops program at the University of South Florida.  This is an 8-week series started as a faculty professional development program in the early 2000s and now is a national online Certificate course. Being agile – a skill I learned during my years in comedy - allows me to update the slide decks each year with new compliance expectations. 

Fostering environments where collaborative conversations happen fuels inspiration for researchers.  When I meet with faculty, I lean in and am laser-focused on their research aspirations. I listen intently to the way they express their ideas, keen to capture their sense of enthusiasm and wonder. That ‘imagine if’ aspiration is the source for their positive research aspiration. Isn’t it fun to help people realize their dream? Through R&D we can advance understanding, support catalytic change – innovations for a brighter tomorrow.  

All of our experiences inform who we are and provide us those hard-earned lessons. What I have learned in writing for a variety of purposes and audiences is the power of language to inform and inspire.  Whether you are a comedian honing your situational charisma on stage, or a research administrator helping a scientist translate their research vision into a funding strategy, research matters and we can all play a role. 

Tyler Tulloch, Catalyst: Actionable tips/tricks that comedians use that could be applicable for research administrators

Sandy Justice: Approach each day with a smile. Develop creative interactive ways to connect, such as, “If you discovered a genie’s magic lamp that granted wishes specific to your research goals, what would you wish for?” and remember to have fun! 

Acknowledgements: Sean Sanczel went on to develop Pencilman Animations and Sanczel Productions. Bill Martinez continued writing and coaching in his role at Busch Gardens entertainment and can be coaxed into performing at events like Wit at the Wharf.


Authored by Sandra Justice, Director, USFSM Office of Research
University of South Florida


Compiled by Tyler Tulloch, Grant Services Manager
Michigan State University
SRAI Catalyst Committee