On Air

"Every researcher has a story": Volunteering @ CFMU - Adam Fortais

Blog/FavouritesNovember 14th 2019
Olivia Fava

Most people know CFMU as a haven for the most unique, underground sounds the world of music has to offer.

That being said, if you’re trying to find a CFMU volunteer, you won’t just find one knee-deep in the ‘80’s blues LPs of our music library; you might also find one in an equally focused and specific section of one of McMaster’s many libraries (of the book variety).

In other words, our volunteers aren’t only musicians or music fans. They’re also researchers.

And that’s especially true of the people behind The AlmaMAC, a podcast that invites Mac’s hard-working graduate students to sit down and discuss their work. The show’s programming mostly focuses on its guests, but what about its hosts?

That’s what we’re here to find out.

Adam Fortais is a final-year PhD candidate and, currently, one of three cohosts of AlmaMAC. He’s also the host of CUPEcast, which brings listeners updates on CUPE 3906, McMaster’s academic workers’ union.

I’ve often wondered, impressed, where he finds the time to do all this; this curiosity naturally motivated my questions. His responses touch on everything from how absorbing interdisciplinary knowledge has changed his own approach to research, to the intersection of storytelling and academia, to dashing across campus to the Greenhouse (funny story about that…). More generally, there’s also some great insights into the life of a graduate student here for aspiring researchers to take note of!

You’re currently a PhD student at Mac. Could you elaborate a bit on how you got here and on your current research?

Hi, I am currently a PhD candidate in my 4th and final year. I’m a physicist, studying the mechanics of soft, squishy and deformable systems. It’s kind of like LEGO for big kids; I build something in the lab and try to understand how it responds to different stresses. I like to focus on systems that can help me better understand biology and living things, so I’ve been obsessing over twisting fibers which act like plant tendrils and sometimes even DNA. I did my MSc in the same lab here at Mac, and before that, I did an undergraduate thesis at Western developing a blood-mimicking fluid for blood flow studies on fake arteries. I learned that blood is literally thicker (and more viscous) than water, and actually flows more like ketchup or toothpaste?

How about your involvement in the graduate student community?

In my Master’s I was way too stressed to really do anything but school work and sleep, but during my PhD I was able to develop a much healthier work-life balance that has let me get more engaged on campus. I’ve attempted to start a few science communication projects (RIP MacSciComm.wordpress.com) that never really panned out. This last year, though, I inherited The AlmaMAC radio show and podcast, and through my experiences with the show, identified a way I could be more involved with our TA/sessional teachers union. After working up the courage, I pitched a Union News podcast (CUPEcast). I’m otherwise not too connected to the graduate community in a clubs-sense, but I am planning on building out The AlmaMAC to incorporate more, and different online shows that showcase the really great stuff McMaster grads and faculty are doing.

Listen: Episode 1 of CUPEcast is here.

I’m a physicist, studying the mechanics of soft, squishy and deformable systems. It’s kind of like LEGO for big kids; I build something in the lab and try to understand how it responds to different stresses.

Could you describe the show you host, AlmaMAC? How long have you been hosting it for?

The AlmaMAC is a show about the graduate students at McMaster, and the rad research they do! It’s been pretty focussed on science purely because that’s kind of my (and the other hosts’) wheelhouse, but we would love to explore the Arts, etc! I am currently co-host with Shawn Hercules and Matthew Barry, and was preceded by the creator and long-time host (and really awesome neuroscientist) Sawayra Owais. The hand-off from Sawayra happened in July and we have been going strong since!

What has the experience been like so far?

The experience has been amazing for building confidence, and of course, super fun. The takeover was stressful, but in an exciting way. Of course we all had grand ideas for what we would do with the show. Little changes to really make it “our own”, so to speak, but I think we found out pretty quickly this summer how much work Sawayra had to do every week.

...I am planning on building out The AlmaMAC to incorporate more, and different online shows that showcase the really great stuff McMaster grads and faculty are doing.

How have your relationships with your co-hosts developed?

From the beginning, we planned to host in parallel, each of us hosting alone on alternating weeks. But, despite not being in the same room very often, I feel like I’ve gotten to know my co-hosts by the way they interview their guests. I think we all came to this with very little interview experience, so it’s been cool to listen to how we are developing.

What do you look for when choosing grad students to host on-air? How do you find potential guests?

Generally, we put out open calls for graduate students who are looking to talk about their work. The ones who will volunteer are generally highly motivated and value science communication. However, some people may feel nervous about speaking live on the radio, or aren’t sure if they have a “story”. In that case, I have been working on doing more pre-recorded shows, and would love to try and find the really great story hiding in your research! Other times I will see something happening on campus and try and chase a story. For example, the first week we took over from Sawayra, I saw the McMaster Greenhouse tweet about their Corpse Plant opening within a day or two of the show. We air on Thursday at noon, and I saw this on Wednesday afternoon. So I ran across campus, burst into the Greenhouse and demanded someone come on the show the very next day (just kidding, but I really did jog across campus). Another time I attempted to volunteer for a medical study on campus, was turned away from the study because I didn’t fit the demographic, so instead asked the researcher if they would like to be on the show. That one should be coming up in the next few weeks. Take home: every researcher has a story to tell!

The first week we took over from Sawayra, I saw the McMaster Greenhouse tweet about their Corpse Plant opening within a day or two of the show. We air on Thursday at noon, and I saw this on Wednesday afternoon. So I ran across campus, burst into the Greenhouse and demanded someone come on the show the very next day (just kidding, but I really did jog across campus).

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Would you say that speaking with so many different grad students about their research has impacted your own research and/or your perspective on it? If so, how?

I had this feeling before I started hosting the show, but speaking to so many people confirmed it - I love research, but what I love more is soaking up information. Every researcher I talk to, after the interview, I think, “wow, I would love to spend some time learning more about that.” So it’s definitely driven me to try and incorporate more ideas from outside my particular branch of physics into my work. For example, one way to look at my research is in a fairly dry, mathematical way where the elastic fibers and films are just that, fibers and films. However, in the last year of my PhD, I am going back to some of my projects (that haven’t been published yet because I get antsy to get back in the lab before the editing is finished) and trying to make connections between what I observe and explain, and what happens in the real world. Instead of seeing a twisted fiber form loops, I see a vine coiling around branches or DNA winding and unwinding its helix.

Has appearing on the show impacted any of your guests, in turn?

I’d like to think so! I know from my experience as a guest with Sawayra, it was a great chance to gain more confidence speaking about my work. I wouldn’t have necessarily guessed it, but giving presentations is waaaaay different compared to an interview, especially a live-to-air interview. I’ve also had guests comment that they weren’t sure if there would be much to talk about, but were surprised at how easy it was to fill 30 minutes. Especially from friends who I strong-armed into coming on the show who thought their episode would be boring.

One way to look at my research is in a fairly dry, mathematical way where the elastic fibers and films are just that, fibers and films. However, in the last year of my PhD, I am going back to some of my projects and trying to make connections between what I observe and explain, and what happens in the real world. Instead of seeing a twisted fiber form loops, I see a vine coiling around branches or DNA winding and unwinding its helix.

Focusing on skills, do you think AlmaMAC has expanded your skillset? Have any new skills you’ve developed surprised you?

After becoming comfortable with the technical side of running the show, I really wanted to learn how to create an environment that led to a feeling of storytelling, while still having the opportunity for spontaneous digressions. I feel I’m still either forcing my guests to travel along the rough script of questions I prepare, or just firing random questions, hoping for the guests to light up over something. A different skill, though, has been creating pre-recorded episodes (I am using Audacity which is a free program very similar to what I’ve used for recording music, ProTools, so the learning curve wasn’t too steep, but the mixing and segue stuff started out pretty rough on the first episode). This was not really an aspect of Sawayra’s AlmaMAC, but I’ve found it much easier to craft a story when I have all the time in the world to do it.

After becoming comfortable with the technical side of running the show, I really wanted to learn how to create an environment that led to a feeling of storytelling, while still having the opportunity for spontaneous digressions.

Has hosting AlmaMAC impacted your life in any other ways?

Last year I made the decision that I was going to seriously pursue some form of science journalism or communications once I graduated. At the time, I pictured this as a career in writing but the more time I spend on the radio, the more interested I am in alternative mediums. It’s also helped me develop a better sense for the kind of stories people want to hear about. Last year I wrote a story for a physics blog that I thought was great, which was essentially, “some math that is sometimes used to describe fluids (that you likely haven’t heard of) does a really bad job at describing a very niche physics experiment for which the importance or relevance is extremely unclear, but, good news, this group solved the problem and now their experiment makes sense!” … This is not a compelling story-arch, and I’d like to think I could do a lot better now.

Last year I made the decision that I was going to seriously pursue some form of science journalism or communications once I graduated. At the time, I pictured this as a career in writing but the more time I spend on the radio, the more interested I am in alternative mediums.

Do you have a personal favourite episode of the show from the time since you started?

I think one of my favorites has got to be Microbes and Arsenic in Groundwater with Reisa San Pedro! We met a few months before that at a mutual friend’s birthday, and being grad students, we talked about our research, and being the big nerd I am, I just couldn’t get enough and was sure her work was meant for Radiolab or some other high profile show (still do, still want to write it, still super busy). This interview was definitely one where 30 minutes was not nearly enough time, but long story short, my mom said she really liked that episode and I should get more people like Reisa to come on the show.

What do you think is the most important thing McMaster’s academic community could learn from AlmaMAC?

To graduate students: I am positive your research is interesting, but the fact that you, a human being with experiences is doing it is enough to keep people entertained.

To professors: your students care so much about the work they are doing. If they are struggling to produce results, they’re probably more disappointed with themselves than you are, but are hesitant to ask for help. A good supervisor will show they care about their students and ask what they can do to help.

Finally, what advice would you give to new or prospective spoken-word hosts at CFMU?

Aside from classic advice like “pretend your audience is one single person you care about, whose intelligence you respect etc”, maybe something like, and maybe this is just my opinion, but humble and understated is kind of boring, and self-deprecating is kind of annoying. I’m listening because I trust what you find interesting is interesting, and because I value your opinions!

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That's all for this volunteering feature.

I'd like to say a big thank you to all 3 AlmaMAC cohosts - Adam, Matthew, and Shawn - for bringing the graduate student experience into focus at CFMU. AlmaMAC doesn’t just highlight the work student researchers do, it’s also a way for those researchers to learn more about – and from – each others’ research, and that community-building is something we’re very proud to support here.

If you’re a graduate student interested in appearing on the show, you can always send a message to almamac@mcmaster.ca. Even if you’ve never once been on the radio, that’s okay! You are a student, after all - what better time to learn something new?

Olivia Fava is a 2019 McMaster linguistics graduate, the current Community Outreach Coordinator at CFMU, and the host of MorningFile. Contact her through email at cfmucom@msu.mcmaster.ca.

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