Generation STEM

Supporting and elevating students from diverse communities to shape a more equitable health science sector

Equity and diversity enable healthcare excellence and revolutionary advancements, and Women’s College Hospital (WCH) is steadfast in its commitment to mentoring the next generation of health scientists and clinicians who will help us shape the future of healthcare. Through programming such as the Emily Stowe Scholars Program (ESSP) and Women of Gairdner, WCH fosters greater community connections and enhances interest in the health sciences, particularly among youth from diverse backgrounds and structurally marginalized communities.

People from diverse communities continue to be underrepresented at all levels in the health sciences. Approximately 41 per cent of Canada Research Chairs identify as women, 22.8 per cent as people of colour, six per cent as a person living with a disability and 3.4 per cent as Indigenous. Put simply, health science often fails to reflect Canada’s demographic diversity. This lack of equity stymies innovation and prevents the research advancements necessary to enhance patient care and improve the health system for all.

For its inaugural year, the ESSP welcomed 21 students to participate in WCH’s Summer Student Research Opportunities. With a special focus on removing obstacles for individuals from underrepresented communities, the ESSP has a collective mission to engage, retain and support diverse scholars throughout their career trajectories. The program funds Black, Indigenous, racialized, Two-Spirit, trans, non-binary and persons living with disabilities who have been systemically and historically excluded in healthcare and health-science career trajectories.

“Support for diverse students can provide the inspiration to embark on a scientific career and lead to the next generation of scientists,” says Dr. Rulan Parekh, WCH’s VP of Academics and a clinician scientist. “For fellows, funding provides support to focus on mentorship, new areas of research and high-risk high-reward science.”

The students were partnered with WCH scientists providing mentorship and support to develop hands-on experience in cutting edge health science areas, such as digital health, transition-related surgeries, familial breast cancer and neurology. In addition to mentorship and networking opportunities, students were exposed to unique learning areas, including Indigenous health, and partnerships with other Toronto academic hospitals. Additionally, the program supports and funds five fellows – a mix of emerging leaders and established clinician scientists at WCH.

In an extension of its educational programming, WCH collaborated with the Gairdner Foundation to host Women of Gairdner, a panel event featuring Gairdner laureates Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Deborah J. Cook, in October 2022. These renowned scientists shared insights into their unique career paths, their work and the challenges they have faced, as well as the need for greater equity within the health sciences.

The event specifically aimed to inspire students from diverse backgrounds and structurally marginalized communities. Ten Toronto-based high schools selected intrepid STEM-focused students to attend the event. They were joined by youth from community organizations and mentorship programs, as well as undergraduate students.

Invited students also had the opportunity to take part in related educational activity and networking event, where students got to know each other, as well as the WCH researchers and scientists in attendance.

“Women’s was energized by these bright young minds,” says Dr. Parekh. “It was truly inspiring to see so much engagement with the speakers – thoughtful questions and insights - and the activities that followed.”

The educational activity was hosted by Nadia McLaren, Manager, Indigenous Health Education, at the Centre for Wise Practices in Indigenous Health, and Suzanne Charles Watson, Director of Anti-Racism, Equity and Social Accountability, who encouraged students to work collaboratively to create vision boards using images and words that represent science.

We need innovative and dynamic health scholarship and research that reflects the realities patients face on a day-to-day basis to drive change in healthcare. The scholarship programs and events at WCH are shaping the future of healthcare, making it more equitable, inclusive and accessible to improve health outcomes for everyone.

Community Partner Spotlight: Visions of Science

Visions of Science Network for Learning exists to advance the educational achievement and positive development of youth from low-income and marginalized communities through meaningful engagement in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). It offers a range of mentorship and access to hands-on STEM opportunities, from outreach workshops to in-school enrichments to community STEM clubs.

Read This Story“Visions of Science engages more than 1,000 youth from low-income and racialized communities across the GTA by facilitating STEM learning and employment opportunities and building a network of support around youth to promote and strengthen their pathways into STEM,” says Dina Al-Khooly, Senior Director of Impact and Learning.

Last year, WCH partnered with Visions of Science to send youth to the Women of Gairdner event. “Visions of Science sees Women’s College Hospital as an important champion of inclusive healthcare, inspiring the next generation of researchers and specialists,” says Al-Khooly. “The event allowed our youth to see that a path to STEM is theirs for the taking – there will be obstacles to overcome, but they belong here and can succeed with the right motivation, confidence and support. We rely on the strength of our community partnerships and educational opportunities to ensure all students are well-positioned to be the STEM scholars of today and tomorrow, addressing challenges and solving problems with bright minds from a wide range of perspectives, experiences and strengths.”

Meet our WCH student correspondents!

Sruti Prabakaran and Ella Nugent held summer student research positions at WCH and helped facilitate the Women of Gairdner panel. Here, they provide us with a window into the next generation of scientists, and we’re inspired!

Read This StoryName: Sruti Prabakaran, grade 12
Role at WCH: ESSP summer student
What's next: Studying biology in university

Name: Ella Nugent, 4th year at the University of Toronto
Role at WCH: Part-time student research assistant
What's next: Finishing my degree and then pursuing either a MSc or a MHSc

On a day in the life of a research student
“A day usually starts with lighter tasks, such as organizing patient questionnaires. We also had the opportunity to attend seminars – meeting women in STEM, learning about Indigenous health or learning how to write an academic paper – and team meetings. I liked being able to collaborate on problem solving and participate in team building activities. Of course, we also did hands-on work like organizing blood sample collection kits!” – Sruti Prabakaran (SP)

On reaching more diverse learners
“Reaching a more diverse pool of learners means we are reaching more of the population! Canada, and Toronto especially, has so many people with different backgrounds and perspectives working together and it’s important that all these voices and perspectives are represented and appreciated. The work we do, the people we hire and the voices we amplify in science should be reflective of the society we live in.” – Ella Nugent (EN)

“Real-world programs like the ESSP change the way you see the interconnections between the STEM fields; they also build interpersonal skills and critical thinking. Different experiences and ways of thinking are valuable both to the student and their teachers and mentors.” – SP

On finding inspiration at Women of Gairdner
“Hearing the journeys of the speakers, especially Katalin Karikó, made me feel less insecure about facing obstacles in my journey. Whether it is missing out on a job opportunity or receiving an exam grade that I’m unhappy with, I know that other women of science have struggled and still managed to make an impact. It is reassuring that, no matter what, my determination will get me where I want to be!” – EN

“Hearing the stories from the Gardiner Laureates about how they persevered through obstacles and developed in their own interests and fields in entirely different ways – it gave me hope.” – SP

On the next generation of health scientists
“Students represent the voice of the future. Involving students in research early not only trains the future scientists, but it gives a voice to the youth, who may see the same problem through a different lens. Diversifying science includes making science more accessible to people of all ages which is why events like the Women of Gairdner, where current scientists can connect with and inspire high school students, are so important.” – EN

“Students, when given the tools and the opportunity, will provide entirely new perspectives. If you open yourself up to the way they think and the connections they make, that breeds innovation!” – SP

Bringing Fresh Perspectives to the Health Sciences

In May 2022, WCH and Women’s College Hospital Foundation (WCHF) also announced the selection of the first five Emily Stowe Scholars Program Fellows. Here, the Senior Fellows and Emerging Leaders provide us with a snapshot of what they’re working on.

Read This StoryDr. Rulan Parekh, Vice President, Academics (Senior Fellow)
Supporting communities in sub-Saharan Africa
“As part of the ESSP Fellowship, I’ll be contributing to research specific to understanding the genetic risk of chronic kidney disease among HIV infected persons living in communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Without the support from the ESSP, I would not be able to address the burden of kidney disease among those of African ancestry. The support will fund projects to understand novel genetic and environment risk factors leading to kidney disease.”

Dr. Lorraine Lipscombe, Endocrinologist & Senior Scientist (Senior Fellow)
Diabetes prevention and management for low-income and racialized populations
“The ESS fellowship has enabled me to build on my research program that’s dedicated to improving access to equitable and effective health care for persons affected by diabetes. As diabetes disproportionately affects low-income and racialized populations, a core priority of my research has been to ensure that interventions are equitably provided, and that research findings adequately represent key underserved populations. My research program has also afforded opportunities to foster health science careers for women, with most of my students and trainees being women from minority populations.”

Dr. Dana Ross, Psychiatrist, Trauma Therapy Program (Senior Fellow)
Communities who are disproportionally impacted by trauma
“The support of the Emily Stowe Scholars Program has been essential in allowing us to conduct real-world research that increases access to trauma-focused care for patients throughout Ontario including those in underrepresented groups who have traditionally had challenges accessing care. In one of our studies, we are training healthcare providers how to offer trauma therapy groups in diverse community settings. In another study, patients in the Trauma Therapy Program at WCH are enrolled in a pilot study to evaluate a novel, multimedia, virtual trauma treatment program. Both projects are having a ‘here and now’ positive impact on people who are suffering from the impact of interpersonal childhood trauma.”

Niru Bhanderi, Nurse Practitioner, Bay Centre (Emerging Leader)
Dismantling systemic racism and oppression in sexual and reproductive health
“Being selected for the fellowship has been a huge privilege. I plan to dedicate my time in advancing sexual and reproductive care for women, especially those women who are underserved in healthcare. The fellowship will open doors in conducting work in dismantling systemic racism and oppression through sex, gender and reproductive health programs at WCH.

The impact of the Emily Stowe program will help advance important initiatives that need to be at the forefront of women’s health. Programs like this give an opportunity to advance research, set forth new and effective strategies and improve initiatives so we can continuously advance women’s health.”

Faith Delos-Reyes, Registered Kinesiologist, Cardiology (Emerging Leader)
Cardiac rehabilitation specific to Indigenous women
“In Canada, Indigenous women are at higher risk for heart disease than non-Indigenous women. With guidance from The Centre for Wise Practices in Indigenous Health, the Cardiac Rehabilitation program will have the opportunity to engage with our Indigenous community partners in a thoughtful collaborative approach to learn how people who identify as Indigenous women may be supported in ways that are meaningful and relevant in heart health promotion.”