Jun 22, 2023

Executive Assistant to the Chair, Jenny Katsoulakos, Retires After Thirty-Six Years

Jenny Katsoulakos
Jenny Katsoulakos, Executive Assistant to the Chair

If you’ve walked down the administrative hallway of the Department of Physiology any time between 1987 and today, chances are you’ve heard the melodic laughter of Jenny Katsoulakos hailing from the Chair’s Office where she is Executive Assistant. All of us in the Department will have to work hard to honour her legacy and bring the same level of energy, enthusiasm, and palpable joy to the hallway now that she’s retired. We sat down with Jenny during her last month of work to reflect on how she got here, her greatest accomplishments, and what’s next.

What brought you to the Department of Physiology at the University of Toronto?

Well, I did my Bachelor of Arts at the University of Toronto, and then I travelled for a while. I came back to Toronto in the spring of 1987, and I didn’t know what to do with my degree. 

It so happened that my cousin was a graduate student in Physiology at the time, working with Dr. Jim Duffin. He had seen some postings on the job board – a physical board in those days! –  so he suggested I come apply to U of T. I applied for a couple of jobs and the first person to call me was the Business Manager from Physiology. She offered me a job working for some of the profs, and I started in August 1987. So I have my scientist cousin to thank for nudging me in that direction. 

Did you know this was your “forever home”?

No! I thought I’d work for a year, make some more money and travel again. But once I started working, I felt like I was back in school, but without the homework. I was so young, in my mid-twenties, and I just had such a great time with the grad students. We used to hang around after work, go to the SGS Pub…it was so much fun! My undergrad degree was in English and Sociology, the sciences intimidated me. When I started, I must have been the only person on the planet who didn't know that insulin was discovered in Physiology.

Dr. Harold Atwood was the Department Chair at the time, and I’d read Margaret Atwood’s books in highschool and university. So when I found out about the insulin thing and that I was working for Margaret Atwood’s brother, I thought I’d just about landed in Hollywood! I was telling everyone, “You’ll never guess who I work with!” Meanwhile, Dr. Atwood was a renowned scientist in his own right, of course.

But really I stayed because as soon as I arrived, every professor that I met was truly wonderful – so kind, so gentle, wanting to teach you. I was never afraid to ask a question. It wasn't like the cutthroat business world at all. I just thought, I’ve landed in the right place. I’ll never find another environment like what I’d found in Physiology. And it’s truly become like a second home.

What was your greatest accomplishment in your time at Physiology?

My greatest accomplishment? Surviving the seven Chairs I worked for! You can write that down, with an exclamation mark!

But really, something I’m proud of is my use of humour to get through any tough periods or challenging times. Because the Chair’s office can be serious! You know, it’s kind of like the principal’s office – you will see people who wish to share their good news (grants, awards, etc.), but it’s mostly someone needing assistance with an issue. So I pride myself on being able to lighten things up.

I’ve had some challenging Chairs, and some more easygoing Chairs, and like a mother with a lot of children, I’ll never say who my favourite is. But they come in and you just have to adjust to their personality – each one has a different working style. When Dr. Steven Matthews was Chair, I said, “Steve, when I retire, I'm gonna write a book about all my Chairs that I've worked with!” He just laughed. He goes, “Well, you'll have seven people who will buy the book.”

Truly, it's been great teamwork with all of them. I'm really proud of the work that I've done for each Chair, helping them steer the ship while they’re the captain, helping them succeed in what they wanted to do with their vision for the Department.

What will you miss and what won’t you miss about the job?

In the Chair’s office we deal with a lot of serious matters, so you’ve got to be really on the ball, good with turnaround times, making sure the Chair has what they need for meetings and so on. There can be a high stress level at times. It's going to take me a couple of months to adjust to not waking up and immediately thinking about all the responsibilities of the day. 

Am I going to miss the job? Yes. But what I'm going to miss more are the people – the close friends I've made, the colleagues, and the students. I feel like the students have kept me young – definitely internally youthful! I think if I was stuck in a cubicle out in the corporate world I would have just grown into a shrivelled up old raisin. But you just sort of feed off of the students’ vitality, and they’ve certainly kept me current. I’ll miss that.

I’m mainly retiring now to take care of my elderly parents. But honestly, if it weren’t for wanting to be there for them in that way, I would keep going a little longer. Still, I'm happy to pass on the reins to another person. They'll put their own spin on things and the office will carry on happily, just like when I took it over from my predecessor who had done it for thirty years. When she told me how long she’d been there, back when I’d first started, I thought she was crazy! And now I’ve broken her record with thirty-six years! 

Aside from caretaking for your parents, what’s next?

In the future, I’d like to travel a bit more, but for now I’ll do some shorter trips. I also love gardening, and I’m going to join a gym. But I’m especially looking forward to not waking up at six AM every day!