ASPA Member Highlight – Nicole Benning, Research Support Specialist, Research Acceleration and Strategic Initiatives, University of Saskatchewan

Written by Karen E. Mosier

Nicole has been on campus since 1991 when she started a job in the Department of Plant Sciences as a Research Assistant. In 1999, she received her Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (Agricultural Biology Major with Minor in Microbiology) and a Bachelor of Science in Biology both from the University of Saskatchewan. In November 2004, she accepted a position as a Grants Officer in Research Services. This position has changed in job title and office name, to her current position as Research Support Specialist housed within Connection Point but reporting to RASI (Research Acceleration and Strategic Initiatives).   

As a Research Support Specialist, Nicole is responsible for providing pre/post-award administration support and customer service to faculty, staff, students, postdoctoral fellows and visitors. Her role is to ensure the institution develops and executes policies for compliance to regulations set by external agencies and stakeholders, and that it leads in demonstrating the best practices of research administration. Nicole interacts with a diverse group of stakeholders encompassing a broad range of duties and processes that involve deadlines, peak periods, and situations that require discretion in interpreting various policies, procedures and guidelines. Her support includes development, preparation, submission and approval of grant proposals; award finalization, sub-transfers and amendments; completion of project deliverables, meeting all financial requirements and closing out funded awards and research grants.

What Nicole likes most about her job is the variety of each day. She gets different requests for assistance every week, from administrators, faculty, and researchers. She admits her job at times is more like ‘solving mysteries’ before they become a problem. Figuring out solutions or finding whatever they need makes her feel like a “Sherlock Holmes” at times. Her sense of satisfaction comes from knowing that she has helped someone or made someone’s day easier. What she likes about working at the University of Saskatchewan is that she can grow in her position and meet people from all walks of life.

Nicole is motivated by the fact that she is part of something bigger – the research enterprise. She believes that, “We all play a small role. We all do our part to get where the research needs to be”.  She feels valued and needed through her position with Connection Point helping to improve customer relations. The belief that she is ‘making researcher lives a little better’ is what drives Nicole to do her very best every day.

Nicole feels that her educational and work background have helped her indirectly in her current position. She has knowledge of being on campus and involvement in research, and now being on the other side of administration, she understands the research environment and wearing multiple hats, like writing labs at night when research applications are due and one is busy with field work. Nicole was the recent recipient of the 2020 University of Saskatchewan Staff Excellence Award.   

What Nicole values most about being an ASPA member is the opportunity to receive benefits and have flexibility in working hours that having a union provides members. Her previous job did not provide benefits. Nicole credits “All the hard work that the bargaining team has done” negotiating our collective agreement that allows ASPA members to have good benefits. In particular she appreciates the dental plan that comes in handy when her children need dental work done, her vacation days that she can spend time with her family, and the flex days so that she can be part of her kid’s lives. Having a permanent ASPA position has allowed her the opportunity to feel more secure in her position and make long term commitments in her personal life.

Her advice to other ASPA members is to “Attend the general meeting and all the fun events like the Brown Bag lunches and the ASPA pizza lunches. We are all really busy but every time I take the time to attend, I learn something new. I connect with others from around campus and it is so nice to see everyone’s faces as normally I deal with them through email or over the phone. Join in virtual events like the ASPA photo contest. You may feel overwhelmed with Covid but just participate.”

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