When Audio and Visual technician Jack Conlin found out he would be receiving the Harvard Hero Award at a staff meeting, he received a gift he didn’t expect: a cape with the Harvard seal emblazoned on it and a pair of red sunglasses with yellow wings on the sides. “They said I’m like The Flash, because I’m always running around,” Conlin says.
This Harvard staff veteran with 40 years of service at the university spends so much time walking from room to room, setting up projectors and handling various technical snafus, that he racks up 5-7 miles on his FitBit just from a typical day at the office. What his colleagues notice even more than Conlin’s activity is his kindness and dedication to his work.
“Jack has been a backbone and hero of MCB operations for an amazing 40 years,” says MCB department chair and professor Alex Schier. “We are deeply grateful for his contributions and the always pleasant and productive interactions.”
Conlin officially received the award alongside his fellow Harvard Heroes (slideshow) from other schools and departments at a ceremony on June 5th. The university-wide prize that honors staff members who have gone above and beyond for the Harvard community and is the highest honor that Harvard staff can receive for their work.
Conlin has been MCB’s A/V tech for nearly two decades, a post where he works closely with students, faculty, and staff alike. He plays a key role in setting up for lectures, classes, student presentations, and even setting up easels for poster sessions. Practically everyone in the department has worked with Conlin. When the call for nominations for the Harvard Hero Award went out, over 40 people joined together to nominate him for the highest honor a Harvard staff member can receive for their work. Everyone noted Conlin’s preparedness, friendliness, and humility.
“I’m quite humbled and appreciated that I have been nominated for the Harvard Hero award,” Conlin says. “But the real heroes are those who nominated me and work with me on a daily basis.” Conlin sees his job as a way to make a difference by supporting researchers who will go on to discover new ways to promote human health. In his view, the Harvard scholars are the stars, not him.
No one was surprised by this humble reaction. “If you don’t talk to him, he will stay in the background, but if you do ask him a question he will answer you with a big smile,” professor Sharad Ramanathan wrote in his nomination for Conlin. “You might notice that the length of his hair changes a lot over the course of the year…If you ask him about it, he will very apologetically tell you that he grows out his hair to donate it to make wigs for children with cancer…and then have a big smile, change the topic and go back to asking how the lectures are going and if you need help.”
“Somebody so solid, kind and genuinely helpful without taking the slightest credit for what he does is what makes our community function like it does,” Ramanathan adds.
Even though Conlin has been doing his current job for over two decades (and amassed a startlingly large collection of A/V adaptors in the process), he didn’t start out aiming to be an A/V tech. Growing up, he sometimes thought he might follow in the footsteps of one of his biggest childhood heroes, his uncle Officer Joseph Cullinane of the Harvard University Police Department. When Conlin was 16, Cullinane helped him find his first job in Harvard dining services at Kresge Hall.
For the next few years, Conlin hopped around, working different jobs in various departments–including bartending at student mixers (after he turned 18), custodial services, and shipping & receiving–before finally ending up in A/V at MCB, where he found his niche. There, he met a laboratory technician named Rachel who would go on to become his wife. “She is also my biggest hero for keeping me focused and grounded,” Conlin says.
The two have a daughter, who developed an interest in biology. In the past, she worked in Professor John Dowling’s lab, and she has recently completed a master’s in marine biology at the University of Maine.
Despite his close ties to the world of science, Conlin remains very formal around the scientists. “I’ve known Jack for 40 years. I’m still Professor Dowling, or just Professor. His daughter has worked in our laboratory, but I can’t get him to call me by my first name,” Dowling says. “But it’s always with a smile, and he’s always enormously helpful.”
Conlin manages the audio-visual department with an efficiency and consistency that’s rare, even at elite universities. “He’s always there when you need him,” Dowling says. “He’s fabulous at getting PowerPoints up and working, slide projectors up and working, you name it, anything with regard to IT, he’s terrific at it. And if he knows you’re going to be using whatever he’s been helping you with, when the time comes to use it, you find him hanging around, waiting to see if everything’s working properly.”
Renate Helmiss, MCB’s Director of Scientific Graphics, teaches a course on how scientists can use computer graphic design tools and agrees with Dowling. “When I walk into my classroom, before the students have arrived, Jack is already there. Whether it’s for a class or a poster session, everything is always set up. I don’t have to worry about it.”
Staff members are also in awe of Conlin’s ability. “He makes everything so smooth and seamless,” says Associate Director for Faculty Services Michelle Cicerano . “He has backups saving backups.”
Audio-visual technology has changed quite a bit since Conlin started working at MCB, but some things have remained the same. “A big part of it is having spare projectors. That, and adaptors,” Conlin says. The rise of smartphones, tablets, and laptops has multiplied the number of different adaptors an A/V tech needs to have in his arsenal, but Conlin rarely misses a beat. When a Harvard MCB student or faculty member needs something, the common refrain is “Ask Jack.”
In fact, “Ask Jack” became such a mantra that it spread to the other side of the river. When MCB’s Executive Director Jessica Manning started her administrative career at Harvard Medical School’s Longwood campus, one of her first challenges was organizing a department retreat. One of her colleagues suggested that she “Ask Jack” for advice, since he organizes MCB’s departmental retreat. “He was so helpful, even to someone from outside his own department,” Manning recalls. “He makes things work seamlessly but doesn’t want any credit. I’ve never heard anything negative about Jack Conlin, and that’s why he’s our Harvard Hero.”
Stories of Jack Conlin saving the day by having just the right adaptor or somehow fixing the projector abound. His work especially makes a difference for graduate students who are learning the ropes of scientific presentations. He works closely with the students in Journal Club, who present scientific papers using hand drawn slides on a projector. “After spending so many hours crafting these drawn slides, if the projector doesn’t work or the equipment fails, then you’d have to give a spontaneous chalk talk on the board, which would be, and I’m not exaggerating, a traumatic experience,” explains graduate student and journal club leader Sandy Mattei.
Mattei speaks from firsthand experience. When she gave one of her first journal club presentations, something went wrong with the projector. “Before I could even begin to panic about how I would spontaneously turn my much labored over slides into a chalk talk, Jack had come down to the podium and figured out how to rewire the system to get the projector back online,” she says. “Without someone with Jack’s expertise, giving a talk like this would be infinitely more stressful.”
In addition to taking care of the projectors, organizing the department retreat, keeping track of adaptors, and helping students and faculty set up for presentations, Conlin’s duties also include maintaining the department’s 18 copiers, managing 2 film processor machines, bringing easels for poster sessions, setting up cameras and recorders when needed, compiling equipment inventories, coordinating courier runs, and even supplying chalk and erasers for chalk talks. He also manages the billing for liquid nitrogen, something his younger self never imagined would be part of his job.
When asked about his inspirations, Conlin talks about his family. His mother, Dorothy Conlin, died in 1999 after a 16-year fight against breast cancer. His uncle died in 2014 of complications from Parkinson’s disease. Conlin sees his job helping researchers who study those diseases, among others, as his way of contributing to the effort to find cures.
Conlin also volunteers his time to helping hospitals. In 1999, he became a platelet donor in order to help cancer patients like his mother. His donations have recently passed the 9 gallon mark, earning him a t-shirt from Boston Children’s Hospital. On weekends, he and his wife often go camping in Thorndike, Maine, where they eventually plan to retire. Their hobbies include mushroom hunting and home-brewing beer.
Still, Conlin doesn’t plan on retiring from MCB any time soon.
“I hope that I can stay as long as possible. Every day is different. There is not a routine,” Conlin says. “Science doesn’t stop around here.”