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Student researcher co-authors nearly two dozen articles

February 9, 2017


Rachel McDonald started working at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre for her first co-op term during her undergraduate Health Studies Program at University of Waterloo. Rachel completed all of five co-op terms at Sunnybrook and finished in August 2016.

During her time at Sunnybrook, she was the lead author on seven published research articles and co-author on almost two dozen more. She was named the 2015 Co-Op Student of the Year locally in her faculty, provincially and nationally.

Rachel is now a first-year medical student at the University of Toronto and “absolutely loving it”.

“I feel like I’m on the right trajectory,” Rachel says. “My undergraduate studies and co-op have definitely helped me along the way.”

Rachel was involved in a study published February 9 in JAMA Oncology that looked at the effect radiation treatment has on the quality of life for patients with cancer that has spread to the bone. 

1. What role did you play in this study? 
I had the opportunity to play various roles in this study. When I was in my first and second co-op terms, I was actually part of patient accrual and data collection for the original study (which looked at steroid pill use and its effect on pain in patients with bone metastases), from which this secondary analysis was completed. In my final term, the original study had been published and we began working on this secondary analysis, for which I helped to interpret the data and write the manuscript.

2. What other opportunities for research did you have at Sunnybrook as a co-op student?
Working with Dr. Edward Chow, the opportunities for research were endless. Immediately in my first term, I worked on case reports and literature reviews, which consolidated already available literature. Beginning in my first term but increasing as I became more experienced, I was able to do more primary collection and analysis of data. The majority of this was regarding radiation treatment for palliative cancer, but there was also the opportunity to do research on the co-op program within the Rapid Response Radiotherapy Program itself.

3. What was the best part of having a co-op at Sunnybrook?
By far the best part of co-op at Sunnybrook, within the Rapid Response Radiotherapy Program, was the balance between patient interaction and research involvement. I gained so many valuable interpersonal skills in working with patients, and was exposed to some things that I am now learning more about in medical school. I also grew in my academic skills when conducting research. Sunnybrook itself is such a supportive environment, and I was able to develop professional relationships with different healthcare professionals.

4. Did anything surprise you about being a co-op student?
The biggest surprise about my personal co-op experience was the amount of responsibility and independence I was given. I felt trusted by my supervisor to complete various tasks that were new to me, and this really challenged me to step up to the plate. When I applied to co-op, I definitely feared getting a job where I did mundane tasks that, although might have helped my supervisor, didn’t really impact anyone outside the workplace. But in my experience, the responsibility I was given allowed me to pursue research that I feel has contributed to the literature.

5. What advice do you have for other students interested in health research?
I was lucky in that the research I have been a part of was part of my co-op job, which was facilitated through the university’s co-op program. I think it can be a lot harder for students who are interested in health research to find their own supervisors, especially when it is their first venture into research. My advice would be to, once you find a supervisor, work hard to immerse yourself in the current literature and identify gaps in it that interest you. If you have a supervisor who is supportive and encouraging, they will help you conceptualize research ideas to hopefully fill those gaps. And don’t be afraid to ask questions when you aren’t sure where to go next – talking to other people can help you brainstorm novel ideas.

Read more about Rachel in the University of Waterloo’s State of the University 2016 publication.