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Updated 3:00 PM August 7, 2008




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Spotlight: The answer is: Who is Kara Gavin?

Keeping the media happy may seem like a difficult job for some, but not for U-M Health System's Kara Gavin.
(Photo by Scott Soderberg, U-M Photo Services)

"I think the key is I was trained as a reporter, so I know where they're coming from," says Gavin, lead public relations representative.

Experience in how to be cool under pressure served Gavin well in March, when she fulfilled a dream to compete on the TV game show "Jeopardy."

"I was strangely calm throughout the game; I was focused on ringing in and on how much fun it was," she recalls. The episode aired in June.

"Everybody thinks it would be a terribly tense experience. Maybe because I have to be on my toes at all times for my job, I'm more able to deal with that."

After growing up near Burlington, Vt., Gavin attended college in Bethlehem, Penn., and earned a master's degree studying journalism at Columbia University in New York City. "I did everything from riding along with some police officers to interviewing the architect who helped design the acoustics at (Lincoln Center's) Avery Fisher Hall," she says.

Gavin began working at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island as a science writer specializing in media relations, and served as a spokeswoman for the lab through a crisis involving groundwater and radiation.

At the lab she met physicist Sean Gavin. They married in 1996 and moved to Michigan when he took a job at Wayne State University. She was hired by UMHS in 1999. In 2000 she helped found the U-M Life Sciences Orchestra, in which she plays French horn and serves as an executive committee member.

Gavin, who expects her first child in December, works at the North Campus Administrative Complex in the UMHS Public Relations & Marketing Communications department.

A typical day for Gavin may include interviewing a researcher or a physician, writing press releases and fielding calls from reporters for interviews. Some of the areas she covers include the Cardiovascular Center, Depression Center, Diabetes Center, the Sleep Disorders Center, general internal medicine and emergency medicine.

Gavin says some of the most intense moments include times when UMHS announces a major gift or research finding.

"There are moments of sheer adrenaline, when the calls are coming rapid-fire; a reporter needs something now and you have to find the expert with the information right away. Then the next morning, you see the quote in the New York Times."

Gavin says the best part of her job is promoting faculty and staff accomplishments.

"It's gratifying when a researcher who has spent 20 to 30 years studying a subject, but who never talked to a reporter before, gets some press coverage," she says. "They say, 'I see why we have to do this.'"

Gavin said it was satisfying to be chosen for "Jeopardy," after passing a second audition last year.

"I knew I was reasonably strong in science and medicine, and horribly weak in sports," she says. She knew her strengths were in Shakespeare-era literature, classical music and some pop music and started studying geography and pop culture.

Gavin didn't win. "I really struggled with the whole buzzer reflex issue, the others managed to ring in before me. You can't ring in until after Alex (Trebek) is done speaking and a staff member presses a button."

Gavin finished with $800 after losing a $4,000 wager on the final Jeopardy question.

"I wanted to hit it big; I had some confidence about the category," which was business trademarks, she says. Host Trebek asked the three contestants to identify the company that adopted an 1893 Spenserian script logo designed by a bookkeeper. The correct answer was Coca-Cola.

"It was a mystery, none of us got it right," Gavin says.

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