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SLN Creators: Interview With Prof Talks Founder & Host, Adam Vassallo

Written by Student Life Network

SLN Creators is featuring Adam Vassallo, a recent environmental science graduate from Queen’s University. Adam recently launched Prof Talks, a podcast in which he interviews university professors about their unique research. He inquires about what led them to their field, their current research interests, and their predictions for the future. Here’s what Adam had to say about making ideas happen:

What inspired you to create Prof Talks?

During my time at Queen’s University, I loved to learn. It was so cool having direct access to the experts in the field and learn all these new things in class.

I studied environmental science, but it wasn’t just the environment that excited me. I took courses in fifteen different subjects — from religion to computer science and everything in between. For me, it was hearing about these topics and research that made it come alive. Reading it in dense academic articles just wasn’t the same.

After graduating, I still craved this exploration of new ideas, and I thought that other people like you might feel the same way. That’s why I started Prof Talks, to share new ideas and research with everyday people.

How has it been going so far?

It’s been a great experience! I’m honestly still shocked that they’re willing to talk to me. I’ve been pretty fortunate to chat with professors from across our great country and all over the world. Everyone has been incredibly generous with their time and it shows just how much they care about their job of sharing their knowledge with others. Without them, I’d just be talking into a microphone with a whole bunch of silence, so I’m definitely grateful that they’re willing to keep me company and provide the great responses.

After each conversation, I come away a little smarter. For instance, after Episode 5 I better understood how artificial intelligence might impact our world, from transportation to healthcare, and Episode 34 taught me about the history of the fur trade and how the store Hudson’s Bay came to be. It’s really like reading a new book with each conversation.

What roadblocks have you run into?

It’s not so much a roadblock, but keeping up with the pace of posting one interview a day for 100 days can be a challenge. It’s a pretty intense schedule. There’s a whole bunch of behind the scenes work that has to happen in order for you to see the episode each day in Apple Podcasts.

The interview itself actually only takes about 10% of the total production time. First, there’s booking the interview. Finding the right professor takes some time. I’ve probably read more university faculty profiles than anyone on the Planet! Once I find a professor I want to talk to, there’s no guarantee that they’re interested or available to chat. It takes about seven emails to get one yes. Once I get that yes, I then do some of my own research to get to know them and map out questions I’d like to ask.

After the interview, there’s the post-production editing and transcription work to make the blog article. Anyone who’s had to write down info from a voicemail knows how long transcribing takes. You never catch all the information the first time around so you have to go back to re-listen a few times. It’s like that, but instead of trying to record just a phone number, it’s typing out 1,000+ words.

Lastly, before an interview is published, I give each professor the chance to look it over. Academics like to be accurate so they appreciate this step, but this process takes some time.

Overall though I’m really enjoying this challenge, but like any good challenge, it isn’t easy.

So what’s the plan? What’s next for you and Prof Talks?

With Prof Talks I’m just focused on finishing these 100 days of interviews. Past that, I haven’t really given it too much thought, but I’m enjoying the process and the conversations so I’ll likely continue.  I’ll probably go with something a little more manageable than one post per day though.

In September I’ll be back at university for a computer science degree. I took a few courses during my first degree and realized how powerful of a tool it is. Computers control our world today and they’ll be even more important in the future, so while I’m still young I want to gain a deeper understanding of how computing can be used to solve challenging problems.

Tell us about some people or resources in your life that have helped with this.

Nothing in life is done completely alone. Of course, if it were just me, it wouldn’t be much of an interview. Each professor that I’ve chatted with has obviously been huge. My friends and family have also been amazing for support, encouragement, and the occasional idea along the way.

If you wanted to go out and start your own podcast, these are all the resources that I’ve used to make it happen:

How are you managing to balance your other commitments with Prof Talks?

It’s definitely time-consuming, but that’s why I took this year off of school and other major commitments to focus on this project. I’m treating it like a full-time job because that’s what it takes to produce 100 interviews in the time frame I set for myself.

How do you deal with rejection when it comes to building Prof Talks?

I deal with a lot of rejection. I send out an average of seven emails to get one professor to agree. I quickly realized that getting turned down is just a natural part of this project.

It’s easy in life to focus on the negatives, but instead of dwelling on all the people who don’t want to chat with me, I focus on the ones that do. That’s like all things in life, if you decide to focus on the positive, it’s a whole lot easier to bounce back from the rejections and failures.

What skills are helping you to make this dream a reality?

My curiosity and love of learning are big reasons why I enjoy creating Prof Talks just as much now as when I started.

I was the type of kid to ask my parents a million questions a day. I’d be at the airport and turn to my mom and ask, “Mum, how does that plane fly?” or I’d be walking down a beach and wonder aloud, “Why do sea shells look like that?”. I’ve just always been curious. Sometimes my friends say that a conversation with me can feel like an interrogation because I ask questions non-stop. Being an interviewer is perfect for me because I can ask endless questions without the other side feeling like it’s an episode of NCIS.

What advice would you give to a student who wants to follow a similar path?

Dive in. If you wait until it’s perfect you’ll never start.

I heard Reid Hoffman (co-founder of LinkedIn) say that looking back, you should be embarrassed by your first product. I believe in that. As you grow and evolve with whatever it is you create, you should naturally look back and notice a difference from when you started. But you won’t get there until you start. So take the leap of faith and dive into whatever it is you want to do.

Any books or articles you’d recommend other young people/students to check out?

The Big Leap:

We all have negative self-talk, doubts, and fears. These limiting beliefs can be huge barriers for whatever it is we want to accomplish in life. This book really helped me reflect on how my past experiences affect the way I think and act today. You’ll be way ahead of the game if you start thinking about these mental roadblocks as a student because the majority of people will never take the time to reflect on these things.

Money Master the Game:

It’s important to think about saving money from a young age. That’s why I started Don’t Freak Out! with my friend Vince. But this book isn’t just about money, it’s about creating good habits. I read this when I was 18 and it’s set a good foundation for the discipline I have today.

Tuesdays with Morrie:

I recently read this classic and it’s now one of my favourite books. It’s beautifully written and a fairly quick read too. It’s easy to get caught up in the routine of life and this book helps us realize what truly matters in life.

Happy City:

Find books on topics that interest you. Go to a trusted news source and see what they would recommend for whatever it is you like. For me, I’m currently interested in topics around urban innovation, so this was a really interesting read on that topic.

What’s something you wish you knew before you started?

After my first interview, I had literal pools of sweat underneath both armpits. My shirt was a whole different colour. When I was catching up with my roommate that night I shared with him how nervous I was to mess up or say the wrong thing. He was like, “You know you can just edit stuff out after right?”

That little piece of advice was a total revelation. I don’t often have to do it, but just knowing the fact that I can makes me a lot calmer (and drier) during the interview.

Who inspires you? Who are some of your role models?

I’m inspired by anyone who follows their passions and has the courage to put something out into the world. From Queen’s University grads Adrien and Hyla who are killing it with their 437 swimwear brand to Elon Musk who’s tackling some of the world’s most pressing problems, it’s inspiring to see people take action.

Specifically, I’m really inspired by Bjarke Ingels, a Danish architect and founder of Bjarke Ingels Group. You don’t have to be an architect to appreciate his out of the box thinking. The creativity he brings to his projects is incredible. I recommend checking out his TED Talk or his episode on Abstract.

In terms of role models and people I look up to, that would be my family. I’m really close with them and they are all beacons of values I admire, including positivity, discipline, and wit.

How do you unwind?

Of course, socializing is huge. Going for food or drinks with friends or just hanging out and playing video games is my idea of a good time. I’m a sports fan, so lately I’ve been following the Raptors in the NBA playoffs.

I think it’s important to find ways to bring joy into everyday life. I really enjoy comedian Theo Von and his podcasts This Past Weekend and King and the Sting. They’re silly and a great way to unwind.

Some other content that I consume: Startup Podcast has great storytelling and Hot Ones has really well-crafted and entertaining interviews.

What advice would you give to high school students transitioning to post-secondary?

I was a tour guide representing Queen’s University for four years so I think I’m uniquely qualified to answer this question. One of the biggest concerns of high school students is choosing where to go to school. My biggest piece of advice is not to sweat it. Wherever you go, you’ll get a great education and can have a great time. It’s what you put into your experience that really matters.

If you’re unsure what to study, there are some schools (like Queen’s) where you complete a general first year before choosing a major going into your second year. That was fantastic for me because I ended up in a different program than what I had initially planned coming out of high school. Consider choosing a school that gives you that option.

If you’re unsure about what you want to do or even if post-secondary education is right for you, it’s okay to take some time to decide. I know there can be a lot of pressure to go right from high school into university or college, but that’s not the only route. I have friends who didn’t rush their decision and took a year to work, volunteer or travel to figure out what it was that they wanted to do next. It was the best thing they ever did so know that that’s an option too.

And post-secondary students transitioning to their career?

I’m in that stage currently so I’m likely not the most qualified to answer this one. But I’m a big believer in following your interests and keeping an open mind as to where that might lead you. Your interests or passions might change over time and that’s okay, but doing something that you love is how you’ll do your best work.

Lastly, please take these recommendations and the other advice you receive with a grain of salt. It’s important to live your life, not someone else’s.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

One day I was chatting with my older brother and told him I wanted to start dating more. He replied, “Well that’s great Adam, but it’s not good enough to just have a goal. How are you going to achieve it?”

He then broke it down for me, “You need a plan to get you there. How many dates are you going to commit to? Are you going to try doing one a week or one every other week? Are you going to join dating apps or are you going to ask friends? It’s totally fine to have that goal, but have a plan to back it up”.

That goes for any goal, not just my love life. I even used it to create Prof Talks. I didn’t just decide to make a podcast about research, I committed myself to making 100 episodes and post one each day.  Set ambitious goals, but have a plan to put it to action.

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