For Titobioluwa Wuraola, spending a summer in the lab of Medicine by Design investigator and University of Toronto (U of T) assistant professor Omar F. Khan was an important step toward his current job at a biotech startup.
“The skills I learned from Professor Khan, like manufacturing practices and the design processes, have been really instrumental in my success and getting into my current role,” says Wuraola. “I’ve been able to apply a lot of what I learned in the lab — the ways of thinking and then being able to properly articulate what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”
Wuraola joined Khan’s biomedical engineering and immunology lab after finishing his fourth and final year at U of T studying pharmacology, cell biology and computer science. He was part of last year’s inaugural group of Summer Student Research Program students, made up of high performing undergraduate students from underrepresented communities.
The program is a partnership with the Research Application Support Initiative (RASI), which is part of the Community of Support program at U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine. RASI is dedicated to helping students at various stages of research interest or experience and maintains a community of students who receive support, mentorship and access to opportunities — such as the Summer Student Research Program.
The Summer Student Research Program is now in its second year. Medicine by Design supports up to 10 RASI studentships per year in the amount of $10,000 each for positions in Medicine by Design labs. This summer, eight students have taken positions in Medicine by Design-funded labs across faculties and disciplines at U of T and its affiliated hospitals.
“Medicine by Design supports this program to provide an invaluable research opportunity to next generation regenerative medicine researchers with great potential,” says Allison Brown, executive director of Medicine by Design. “We’re thrilled to see our first cohort of students move on to exciting new endeavours or continue in their studies with a deeper understanding of regenerative medicine research. Our current cohort of summer students are thriving in their research positions.”
Aaliya Pathan, who completed her undergraduate degree at U of T as a human biology major with minors in psychology and French, filled a summer student research position in the lab of Medicine by Design’s scientific director, Michael Sefton last year. She says her time in the lab prepared her to undertake a master’s degree at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“In addition to enhancing my research abilities, I also built on my soft skills. It prepared me to become a resilient researcher and gave me valuable insight on what to expect when it comes to research. You’re going to have setbacks and experiments that don’t work out and you have to be willing to adapt and try different things. I learned to be a more efficient researcher with the help of all the wonderful lab members at the Sefton lab,” she says.
Pathan says she was brought to the RASI program because she was seeking support in her academic and research life.
“Being the first person in my family to pursue post-secondary education, it was pretty difficult to try to find a path to navigate through,” she says.
She came across the RASI program when she was researching about how she could get help with applications to student positions as well mentorship.
When she saw the posting in the Sefton lab, which is in the Donnelly Centre of Cellular and Bimolecular Research, she was intrigued by Sefton’s research and some of the biomaterials his lab is using in developing a therapeutic strategy for type 1 diabetes.
Wuraola says he was drawn to the RASI program for similar reasons as Pathan. He says that being from a minority community, he didn’t see himself reflected in scientific research growing up.
“When you’re a kid from a marginalized group and you’re interested in science, what you see in media, even from a young age, is the ideal picture of a scientist is often an older white man. So you think, ‘I’m interested in science, but I don’t really see any scientists who look like me.’”
Ike Okafor, a senior officer for Service Learning and Diversity Outreach who leads the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s Office of Access and Outreach and runs the Community of Support program, says the RASI and Medicine by Design partnership levels the playing field by providing an opportunity to students who are strong academic scholars with promising potential for research who face barriers in accessing research positions.
“The program gives a valuable opportunity to these students within their research community,” says Okafor, “This initiative is just one part of the Community of Support’s larger goal to increase diversity in healthcare and research by supporting students who face systemic barriers.”