A Sunnybrook initiative provides research opportunities and mentorship to Black and Indigenous medical students
A year ago, Chika Obetta was a first-year University of Toronto medical student with very few physician role models, limited access to research opportunities and only a vague idea of how she wanted her career to unfold.
Now she has all three, thanks to SPARK (Sunnybrook Program to Access Research Knowledge for Black and Indigenous Medical Students) and support from Sunnybrook’s donor community.
Chika is one of eight students in the donor-supported program launched in 2021 to introduce aspiring Black and Indigenous students to medical research and help them identify and realize their career goals. SPARK students spend the summer after their first year of medical school working on a research project with a research supervisor, who also acts as a mentor. Chika and her peers are each assigned a career and community mentor, who provide support and a safe space to discuss residency applications, career planning and the challenges of exclusion and racism.
SPARK has been both career–and life-changing for Chika, who immigrated to Canada from Nigeria with her family seven years ago.
“It was hard getting a foot in the door. Programs like SPARK make it easier for those of us without the early exposure and mentorship” says Chika.
Lighting the way forward
Fellow SPARK participant and University of Toronto medical student Sophie Weiss agrees. The great-granddaughter of a residential school survivor, Sophie started reconnecting with her Métis roots a few years ago. Her mentors have been an important part of that journey, helping her learn about Indigenous practices, inform her medical career and navigate the emotional heaviness of residential school graves that continue to be uncovered throughout the country.
Having access to a donor-funded research externship also meant that Chika and Sophie didn’t need to choose between an unpaid or low-paying research position and a part-time job to support their education.
“This time last year, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” says Chika, who has her sights set on becoming a dermatologist. "Now I'm part of a research project; I'm talking to different doctors and mentors; and I have a clear path to the next three years and my residency."
Building a better health system and community
When Dr. Mireille Norris joined Sunnybrook nearly two decades ago, she was the only Black woman and the only Francophone on the Hospital’s physician roster.
“I stayed against all odds because I made a family here,” says Dr. Norris.
Yet, the Sunnybrook geriatrician and University of Toronto Lead for Black and Indigenous Learners recognizes that not everyone shares her experience. After reviewing the files of Black and Indigenous medical students, she saw enormous promise and talent, “but little of the support they needed to excel and thrive.”
Dr. Norris voiced her concerns to several colleagues, including Dr. Michelle Hladunewich, Dr. Jill Tinmouth and Dr. Nick Daneman, and, together, they launched SPARK (Sunnybrook Program to Access Research Knowledge for Black and Indigenous Medical Students).
“I came up with the acronym SPARK – it popped in my mind,” Dr. Norris reflects. “I felt ‘access’ to be an important focus of the program: I had personally experienced the challenges of accessing this knowledge and accessing mentors. I also felt passionately about the need for fair market funding and a longitudinal experience that would last a full year to ensure delivery of substantive research.”
After successfully matching four students to research projects and mentors in 2021, SPARK grew to eight placements in 2022. The program also expanded beyond the Department of Medicine to include research opportunities in trauma, surgery and psychiatry, with support from Sunnybrook donors.
“Now in its third iteration, SPARK has raised awareness among the Sunnybrook community about the need and potential of Black and Indigenous learners, whose research has been displayed at medical grand rounds,” says Dr. Norris. “Many such learners have gone on to win awards, present nationally and some internationally, and contribute to manuscripts. Dissemination of research done by these learners, who are funded by Sunnybrook, raises the profile of Sunnybrook as an institution who leads nationally in providing access to top-quality research to Black and Indigenous learners.”
By exposing students to opportunities they might not otherwise have, SPARK does much more than increase Black and Indigenous representation in the field of medical research, adds Dr. Norris.
“This is about making a better health system, a better community for all. When you support the most vulnerable in your community, everyone is lifted up.”
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