University leader to podcast host: when a virus expert goes viral

Weekly broadcast from University of Toronto vice-president has captured the attention of thousands

May 5, 2020
Vivek Goel
Source: University of Toronto

Vivek Goel is no stranger to leading an organisation during a pandemic.

The professor of public health led the University of Toronto’s response during the Sars outbreak in 2003 and was on the front line of the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 as founding president of Public Health Ontario. The latter involved participating in daily press conferences and being interviewed by the media for several months.

But Professor Goel, vice-president of research, innovation and strategic initiatives at Toronto, has entered a new realm of science communications during his leadership of the institution’s response to Covid-19: podcasting.

His weekly broadcast started in March as an efficient way to communicate the latest public health updates to members of staff and to explain how the institution should respond.

“I was getting so many invitations to do that [from colleagues that] someone suggested, ‘Why don’t you just start recording these things and sending them around?’” he said.

The podcast, which Professor Goel records on his iPhone at home, quickly evolved to also address colleagues’ questions about personal, everyday issues, such as whether it would be OK to visit a family member and whether they should wear a face mask when going out for a run.

Other episodes have covered why the death rate appears to be so different across countries, how Canada is doing on flattening the curve, contact-tracing, testing and when there may be a vaccine, in a bid to help make sense of the complex and often conflicting messages about Covid-19.

Professor Goel’s expert take on these common issues has captured the attention of the general public in Canada and beyond, with each episode garnering an average of 100,000 listens. He now plans to dedicate a future episode to responding to questions that members of the public have sent in.

“When I started, I thought the primary target would be the university community. But now I’m getting letters and notes from people all over the community who don’t have anything to do with the university, and they’re finding it useful as well,” he said.

“I don’t have the data on where they’re coming from, but given the comments I’m receiving, it is being listened to all over the world. I think alumni are listening to it and then trying to find out what they should be doing in their own jurisdiction.”

Professor Goel said the direct engagement with the public, in particular learning the questions and issues that concern them most, is helping the university to think through the areas it will have to address in order to restart some of its functions.

He added that being forced to “have the discipline of trying to think through a complex topic, such as when are we going to get a vaccine ready, into a three-minute podcast is helping me in the [broader] communications that we have to do”.

Following the success of Professor Goel’s podcast, Maydianne Andrade, a behavioural ecologist at Toronto, has launched a podcast called the New Normal, which will feature members of her family, her students and some of her colleagues, whose focus will be on how people are coping with Covid-19 and what kind of future they are building in the process. Another potential podcast on the economic impact is also in the pipeline.

“What I’m seeing across the university and across many universities is people stepping up and taking on tasks that they might never have imagined doing six weeks ago and learning very quickly how to do that,” Professor Goel said.

For him, this “speaks to a much bigger issue” of “the importance of having research-intensive universities that are globally connected”.

“We have really bright people who are adaptable and can build collaborative networks quickly, both within the university and with other institutions,” he said. “I think it’s been amazing to see how people have stepped up and responded to what is needed.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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