Learning for the future in undergraduate education

Photograph of Urquhart Brad

Brad Urquhart, PhD, stepped into the new role of Associate Dean, Basic Medical Sciences Undergraduate Education in September. In this role, he oversees the Bachelor of Medical Sciences and Neuroscience programs at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

Urquhart runs a robust research program looking at why different people react differently to drugs, and how kidney function affects the ability to process some medications. He is also a passionate educator who has won numerous teaching awards, including a Dean’s Award of Excellence for Junior Faculty and the Marilyn Robinson Award for Teaching Excellence. He spoke to us about this new role and his hopes and aspirations for the BMSc program.

Tell us about your new role as Associate Dean, Basic Medical Sciences Undergraduate Education.

This role as an Associate Dean is brand new, so what the role entails exactly is still a work in progress. When Candace Gibson was the Acting Vice Dean of Basic Medical Sciences, she advocated that the position be moved from Assistant Dean to Associate Dean. This allows me to have more of an influence within the School and also to have a voice across campus. Every faculty has an Associate Dean that is focused on undergraduate education and we work together on various committees. Because this role is focused on the BMSc and Neuroscience programs, there is a lot of collaboration with the Faculty of Science in particular.

So far, I’ve really enjoyed working with the Undergraduate Chairs from the departments across the School. I was the Undergraduate Chair of Physiology and Pharmacology before this, so I already knew that the Committee of Undergraduate Chairs is a motivated and dedicated group of people, so that’s been really great.

What are your first priorities stepping into this role?

Because I wanted to take time to really learn the scope first, I tried not to have any priorities at first.

Now that I’ve been in the job for a few months, I think one of the biggest priorities is going to be retention of our students. The entrance average is really competitive, and even still, we accept about 800 students into first year. They spend the first two years of their learning over in the Faculty of Science and then come to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry in third year. By that time, we’re down to just under 500 students. I don’t think we want to lower the bar to increase retention, but I want to find out why we are losing 300 students and how we can keep them in the program.

Another priority will be to create some consistency across the various modules in the BMSc program. When the students start their medical sciences degree with the Faculty of Science, they are taking the same classes and they have the same expectations. When they come to us in third and fourth year, they choose their modules and then scatter everywhere. Some students will never take the same class again, and that creates different expectations in different programs. We wouldn’t want them all to be taking the same classes – the choices are important – but having one or two courses that are consistent for all students would be great.

Lastly, I’m a big believer in learning for the future. Western has this new emphasis on Data Science, which explores how to manage, visualize, model and transform data into solutions to existing challenges, and I think incorporating that into our programs is going to be key. The students may not think they need it now, but it’s the way the future is going, so getting that into our programs is a priority.

At the end of my term, I want to be able to say that we’ve accomplished some positive change. It’s easier to keep doing what we’ve always done, but if we want things to move forward and get better, we have to change.

There have been a lot of leadership changes at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and Western recently; what excites you most about these changes?

It’s really energizing and I’m getting more energized as we move on. I started in the role September 1 and I had the chance to meet Alan Shepard, our new President, shortly after I started. I met the Provost, Andy Hrymak, before that and I think they are both great voices and great leaders.

Everything I’ve heard about Dr. John Yoo is really positive and I’m excited about him stepping into the role.

For me, being new in the role, it was a fresh clean slate to begin. But having new people come in that are also motivated to make positive change has been really exciting. Everyone wants to put their stamp on it and say, “I helped make this better.”

This role focuses heavily on education. Tell us a bit about your teaching philosophy.

I love teaching and I want to keep doing it; it’s part of the job that I really enjoy. My philosophy in teaching is to understand my students and help them become independent learners.

I teach in third and fourth year of the BMSc program and I teach in Dentistry. Before I start teaching, I have to know who my students are and what their aspirations are. Dental students are thinking about things that will influence their practice. Undergraduate medical sciences students want to get somewhere – whether it is graduate school or working for a company or in medical or dental school. So, they are also really motivated, but for different reasons. I think you have to know who you are teaching so you can help foster what they need.

I try to understand my students’ motivations and then teach using cases and important examples that matter to them. I like to ask questions, some of which we discuss in class, some of which I send them off to look up themselves. I feel that it’s important to not give them all the information, so they can participate in self-directed learning.

What will be your biggest challenge in this role?

My life is teaching, research and service. The proportions of those have changed a little bit, but I’m still committed to doing all three really well – so, finding that balance is definitely going to be the biggest challenge in my job. It’s a good time for me. I have the best job. I can’t imagine doing anything else.