Background: The Ward Summer Student (WSS) program provides a unique interdisciplinary mentorship experience to exceptional undergraduate students interested in childhood disability research. The program has been running successfully for 13 years. It is highly competitive with application numbers exceeding 1,600 annually and approximately 20-24 students are selected into the cohort yearly. Through this program, students have the opportunity to contribute to various projects over the summer term and participate in Holland Bloorview (HB) research activities through employment in the Bloorview Research Institute (BRI). At the end of the summer, students are given the opportunity to present their work to over 300 symposia attendees including researchers, clinicians, families, academics, and politicians. Many top tier research institutes across the province offer summer internships to students, but few have a dedicated didactic training program and conference presentation opportunities. This comprehensive program has garnered a prestigious reputation. In fact, HB was recently named one of Canada’s Top Employers for Young People (2020) and the WSS program was highlighted as a particular strength during the review. To enhance HB’s footprint as leaders in childhood disability research, we have added two additional streams to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion within the program: (1) the lived experience summer student stream with a dedicated position for students with disabilities, and (2) a second stream for those students of Indigenous decent.
The challenge: Due to COVID-19 physical distancing regulations, research institutes across Ontario have moved to a work-from-home or offsite model. This has suspended the majority of onsite research studies and programs, including summer research internships offered across the province. Many exceptional undergraduate students will now be left without jobs and more importantly opportunities to obtain scientific training over the summer months, further fuelling economic disadvantage of young people. Furthermore, this missed opportunity may be detrimental especially to upper year undergraduate students, the common demographic of successful summer students, that relied on this experience to apply for graduate and professional degree programs in science.
The opportunity: The BRI and its scientists are passionate about training the next generation of rehabilitation scientists. We believe that early opportunities in interdisciplinary research are rare – in fact, we are the only research institute in Canada to provide these opportunities to blossoming scientists. As such, we are seeking funds to create a dynamic, virtual mentorship experience for these students over the summer, the e-WSS Program.
The e-WSS Program: This program will be offered entirely in a virtual world where scientists, research staff and students will be engaged in collaborative work through the power of technology. To replicate the collegiality of going through the program in a cohort, students will be engaged in virtual Lunch & Learn sessions and be provided a platform accessible through any computer or mobile phone to socialize and brainstorm together. Videoconferencing software will allow students to connect with their research labs and scientists. Collaboration and project management software will be utilized to facilitate the assigning of tasks from scientists and research labs, as well as serve as a job board for the rest of the research institute to post challenges they are facing that provide students an opportunity outside the domains of their associated labs. This will allow students to utilize their diverse backgrounds to gain a broader experience. Past students have commented on the importance of the symposium conference at the end of the summer. We will ensure this conference opportunity will continue; the symposium will be delivered using a platform to host a virtual conference and poster exhibit. This will provide an experience mimicked to that of an in-person scientific conference but from the safety of home. In addition to these core academic and research elements, we are aware that one of the most successful aspects of our program is the peer mentorship and support offered through the cohort design. In order to ensure this element remains, we will include virtual sessions for the cohort to learn from each other and graduate student and post-doc mentors. Moreover, we acknowledge that the state of current affairs and the career and future uncertainty that is flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic puts individuals at risk of isolation, loneliness, and poor mental health. This is especially true for many young students who many be isolating independently and away from family and loved ones. As such, we will be introducing a new element and focus to this year’s e-WSS program – mindfulness and wellbeing. We are fortunate to work at a hospital dedicated to the holistic wellbeing of children and youth. We have access to specialized clinicians to support this aspect of the program. We will offer group or individual support to students that includes skills-based training with a focus on development of coping and resilience.
Other examples across the province: To our knowledge the e-WSS program will be the first comprehensive virtual student mentorship offered across the province of Ontario. Our hospital and research institute are fully-affiliated with the University of Toronto and all onsite scientists hold cross-appointments in different faculties across the university. We are fortunate that many of the scientists have been actively engaged in transferring virtual courses into an online format in a rapid fashion. We will use the learnings from this group of scientists to ensure the virtual classroom remains dynamic and inclusive. Moreover, our hospital clinicians are currently moving to tele-health models, including group delivery. We will benefit from hospital policies and best-practices which are quickly being rolled out to enhance the student trainee experience.