Practical innovation drives research lead

Helen Duffy likes her research role at Niagara College simply because it gives her the freedom to explore innovation.

More than that, though, the part-time research lead with the Business & Commercialization Solutions team is enjoying the opportunity to mentor student researchers, and interact with clients on a wide variety of applied research projects.

Duffy, an experienced marketing and communications manager, joined the Research & Innovation team recently to bring her 14 years of know-how into the team approach for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in need of innovative solutions. For business projects, that can mean a variety of challenges from social media planning to market intelligence, to human resource planning.

“Data and making informed choices are so important for businesses and I love that this job allows me to explore new subject matters and learn while supporting growing businesses in making informed decisions,” she says. “Coming from a marketing background, it is particularly exciting to me to make recommendations that we know will support a business at any stage of their growth.”

Growing up in Ireland, Duffy’s initial career involved working with non-profits, then weddings and events marketing, before moving towards general content marketing. She completed all her formal education in Ireland, including a BA in Economic and Social Policy, an MA in Community and International Development, followed by a night course in Public Relations.

In 2016, when her husband’s job brought him to the company office in Niagara, they moved to St. Catharines. She then began working for various companies in the region, in roles involving marketing and communications, digital marketing, and social media.

“I love the challenge of solving problems in businesses and educating consumers through fun and engaging content methods.”

“I love the challenge of solving problems in businesses and educating consumers through fun and engaging content methods,” she says of the marketing work.

Yet academics kept calling. “I finished my Masters 12 years ago in Ireland and have always intended to return to an academic setting to do my PhD one day. I have consulted with start-up businesses as a freelancer and in-house as a marketing manager. This opportunity [at Niagara College] allowed me to combine the experience I had to date with the research side that I love.”

While there isn’t any typical day for a part-time research lead, because of the variety of industry partners and their varied innovation needs, there is one root at the heart of all projects: the search for data to support the solutions. “We break down each step into a path to finding a solution. We look for any research we can find and then use Niagara College resources to access the harder-to-reach data. We also work with Paula Reile, the research program manager, to source more defined statistics” she notes, available through BCS resources, such as data subscriptions.

As noted earlier, Duffy is not alone in the work. Students are hired by the division on a term-by-term basis, so that they too have a chance to work on projects and gain real-world experience, which in turn enhances their resumes when it is time to seek full-time employment. While the research assistants work on bringing the data into a report and presenting it, Duffy supports with editing, going deeper on points s required and ensuring that the reports bring practical applications for the research.

“I love working with the student researchers and seeing their progress,” she notes, “but also the feedback from clients in presentation sessions is really fulfilling, as we get that direct engagement to learn how to improve or what is the most useful aspect of the research.

“Coming from a marketing background, it is particularly exciting for me to make recommendations that we know will support a business at any stage of their growth. The work is innovative and the team is challenged constantly to think about how research is applied in a practical sense to business.”

Much of Duffy’s spare time of late has been taken up with renovating a house. Now that the “massive project” is nearly complete, she is looking forward to doing more of what she loves – exploring all things Niagara – and getting back to reading more crime stories.

“I love lake swimming in the summer and even sometimes in the winter, but I tend to do that more in Ireland as Canada’s winters are just a bit intimidating for me.

“I love living in Niagara with access to hiking trails, beaches, wineries and so many tourism options. Even though I’m here 5.5 years, I still love to explore especially Niagara Falls.”