Carnegie Mellon University

Julia Royall headshot

October 11, 2023

A Producer at Heart

CMU alumna Julia Royall’s support aids the interdisciplinary creation of health innovations at CMU-Africa

By Morgan Kistler

Carnegie Mellon University alumna Julia Royall’s varied interests, background and connections have taken her to careers and continents far beyond her initial pursuits in the world of theater.

Her path from theater to global health has a clear common thread — her passion for bringing together everything necessary to tell a compelling story.

She truly is a producer at heart.

During her time on campus, Julia earned a master’s degree in English literature from Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences in 1973 and pursued doctoral coursework in theater aesthetics/dramatic literature from the College of Fine Arts. In 1976, she took a step back from the doctoral program to cofound The Iron Clad Agreement, an experimental theater company of actors, playwrights, directors, and songwriters who brought stories from the Gilded Age to the people of Pittsburgh.

As producer for the group, Julia pulled together the ideas, people and funds needed to bring these shows to life. For many of these components, she leaned on the expertise of her alma mater. She looked to the School of Drama for playwrights and directors; to the College of Engineering for an understanding of how inventions of the Gilded Age worked; and to Department of English for novels to adapt for the stage.

Through these interdisciplinary collaborations, Julia created productions with unique style.

Using factory loading docks, river barges, boardrooms and classrooms as performance spaces, the company built a minimalist theater without the benefit of sets, props or costumes. Instead of expecting people to go to a traditional theater to experience stories, The Iron Clad Agreement brought stories directly to audiences in familiar spaces.

These sites could tell the stories of Pittsburgh better than any stage ever could — and people loved it.

Recalling the group’s stage adaption of the novel, “Out of This Furnace,” Julia recounts how the sidewalk outside the union hall in Braddock — the Pittsburgh mill town where the story is set — was lined with people eagerly waiting to see the show.

“It was incredible,” she says. “It wasn’t to see us. It was to see their story.”

“Research that had been carried out and published in Africa in the ‘90s had never been seen by people in Africa who could actually take that research and implement it. A paradigm shift had to happen.”

From theater, Julia began exploring other areas where she could apply her passion for telling “their story.” She discovered she fit into the field of global health and the difference that she could make within it.

She began at SatelLife, a small nonprofit using low-Earth orbit satellites to improve communications for public health. The organization specifically focused on areas of the world including Africa where access was limited by poor communications or economic conditions.

Through this work, Julia recognized the challenges and limitations of the established paradigms in the field.

Julia adopted a collegial approach to her work — one where African scientists identified their health priorities and were provided with information and communication technology tools to address them. It also became clear that better connections were needed between physicians across the continent.

“Research that had been carried out and published in Africa in the ‘90s had never been seen by people in Africa who could actually take that research and implement it,” Julia says. “A paradigm shift had to happen.”

She was recruited to the big stage of the U.S. government at the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Her task was to create a malaria research communications network to support the efforts of researchers and scientists in Africa with critical tools. In many ways, Julia was back to being a producer — coordinating many actors, networking 24/7 and ensuring the audience was at the center of the story.

Librarian Sara Mbaga carrying out a training session in information retrieval with medical students and researchers at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

Her passions collided once more when she saw the approach she had adopted in her own work being modeled at Carnegie Mellon University in Africa.

“I think the heart of Carnegie Mellon Africa is a collegial collaboration between a university in Pittsburgh and a young country in Africa to create something that wasn’t there before,” Julia says. “That something is to produce young African engineers and IT professionals and entrepreneurs who can lead the continent forward. That was pretty exciting to me, and that’s what I believe in.”

To continue to model the approach of sustainability, ownership and autonomy, Julia created the Student Innovation Fund for CMU-Africa. The fund seeks to promote creative interdisciplinary efforts for health that bring together entrepreneurship, innovation and information technology for students enrolled at CMU-Africa.

“It’s really important that the collegial approach gets modeled, that process of having an idea and questioning, ‘Who needs to be at the table to make this idea work?’” Julia says. “My hope for the fund is that it can model this approach. It’s really a different way of looking at development.”

Julia hopes to spread the same lessons, spirit and mentorship she received during her time on the Pittsburgh campus to the next generation of changemakers in Africa.

“It’s all about making your ideas come alive somehow and be available to other people,” Julia says. “Having a strong base for whatever direction you decide to go in, whether it’s theater or global health, that’s what I feel Carnegie Mellon gave to me.”