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Our Stories

New initiative increases access to science for students in Regent Park

Toronto, November 30, 2018

By Ana Gajic

Photo from the KRC for Take Your Kids to Work Day
High school students learn to use lab equipment at the KRCBS for their experiments.

It’s a chilly November morning and a team in the Keenan Research Centre (KRC) is examining sections of organ tissue. Another team is analyzing brain scans from state-of-the-art MRI technology. Yet another is identifying fingerprints under a microscope.

One characteristic sets these teams apart from the others in the building. They’re not scientists, post-doctoral students, PhD candidates or university students – at least not yet. These are high school students taking part in a new partnership for Take Your Kids to Work Day between St. Michael’s Hospital and Pathways to Education from Regent Park.

A group of 20 Grade 9 students visited the labs at the KRC for Take Your Kids to Work Day. It is the first step of a larger partnership underway between St. Michael’s and the community-based group focused on bolstering education and lowering the dropout rate of high school students in Regent Park.

“Aligned with the hospital’s mission to provide care for vulnerable populations and strengthen community partnerships, we wanted to reach out to students who may have less access and opportunities, and to open doors to the mentorship, science, and medicine at St. Michael's Hospital,” said Dr. Sharon Straus, physician-in-chief and director of the Knowledge Translation Program at St. Michael’s, who is co-leading the initiative to partner with Pathways.

The partnership was born out of a goal to bridge the gender and diversity gap that exists in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) fields. Dr. Straus, along with Dr. Sharmistha Mishra, Dr. Ori Rotstein and Yunjo Lee, teamed up to create an initiative called Access (STEM) M to increase access to the intellectual, physical, and mentorship space forged by STEM scientists and entrepreneurs at St. Michael’s whose work is also advancing medicine.

Photo from the KRC for Take Your Kids to Work Day
Victoria Naneeti and Yasmin Bahdon, both in Grade 9, visited the KRCBS on Take Your Kids to Work Day through Pathways in Regent Park.

“Thousands of Canadian youths drop out of school each year, reflecting a tremendous loss of potential,” said Dr. Mishra, a scientist at the Centre for Urban Health Solutions of St. Michael’s and an infectious diseases physician. “Lack of role models and insufficient resources can also lead to students not being exposed to careers such as those in the STEMM fields. The consequences of these barriers are a lack of representation in various career disciplines.”

Pathways is the first community-based organization Access (STEM) M has partnered with to begin to address these gaps and inspire a new generation of people pursuing STEMM-based careers.

“Something we often take for granted is feeling like we belong in a certain space,” said Alex Vallee, coordinator of the Student Parent Support Workers and the Academic Support Program at Pathways. “We might not know what prevents someone from feeling like they have access to spaces. So we want to open these spaces up for students.”

Pathways started in the Regent Park Community Centre to help ensure that students in the Regent Park community had access to educational support no matter where they went to high school. At the time the program started the high school dropout rate in the area was 56 per cent. Within ten years of Pathways actively working with students, the high school dropout rate has decreased by more than 70 per cent in Regent Park, and post-secondary attendance has grown from 20 per cent to 80 per cent for graduates of the program.

Take Your Kids to Work Day is just one opportunity to bridge gaps, Vallee said. While most consider it a given that they’ll accompany their parents to work, he said, in reality the day is classed and depends on assumptions about students’ parents. For that day and others like it, Pathways offers alternative programming to students who may be interested in fields their parents don’t work in. This year, St. Michael’s was one option for students.

“I thought it would be a chance to learn something new,” said Veda Patel, a Grade 9 student who participated in the day at St. Michael’s. “This showed us what happens in labs. I never would have thought that all this happens here. It's something I could see myself doing.”

In a survey conducted by St. Michael’s at the end of the day, all of the students said they found the day informative, and more than half said it increased their interest in science. For Victoria Naneeti, a Grade 9 student who attended, it’s still too early to decide what she wants to do when she grows up, but she knows her options are endless.

“I like science, I like learning about the human body,” she said. “Some days I want to be a doctor, some days I want to be an engineer. It changes every day.”

Vallee and the team at St. Michael’s are eager to see the partnership through Access (STEM) M grow to include activities for more senior high school students to interact with scientists, clinicians, and doctors at St. Michael’s through workshops or longer-term initiatives.

“I saw scientists sitting with the students and making little connections,” Vallee said.

“Some moments from this day will stick around for life. There’s so much to be gained from this partnership.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in more than 29 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

St. Michael’s Hospital with Providence Healthcare and St. Joseph’s Health Centre now operate under one corporate entity as of August 1, 2017. United, the three organizations serve patients, residents and clients across the full spectrum of care, spanning primary care, secondary community care, tertiary and quaternary care services to post-acute through rehabilitation, palliative care and long-term care, while investing in world-class research and education.

See More of Our Stories in 2018