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Bright sparks

Dr. Michelle Norris, seen here with SPARK participants Chika Obetta (l) and Sophie Weiss(r)
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.

Everyone tells me I can do it – and, finally, I believe it,” says Chika, who has her sights set on becoming a dermatologist.

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.

I have a very large interest in Indigenous health, and I plan to do lots of outreach and really form my future practice around that. I know that I can make an impact,” says Sophie, who wants to become a geriatrician.

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."