Students from across Schulich Medicine & Dentistry are taking action to bring about social, political and health care change
By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93
"As medical students, we’re told that physicians can make change happen, and that their signature means something,” said Rachelle Beanlands. “As second-year medical students, we don’t really know what that means yet, but as future physicians we can use our voice and position now for positive change.”
Beanlands is a member of the Medicine Class of 2020, and with her classmates Lily Robinson and Kyla Vanderzwet, advocates for equality for all in the delivery of health care. Together, they are working on a project focusing on the LGBTQ community in London and the inequities of the delivery of health care to that community.
“We want to eliminate refusal of care and discrimination, help facilitate culturally competent care, and build awareness for physicians of resources that exist which will enable them to provide the best care for the LGBTQ community in London,” said Robinson.
It’s a lofty goal, but one the trio is confident will be realized.
That confidence stems from strong track records of community experience working with social services agencies, including Mission Services, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, from promoting LGBTQ anti-bullying strategies with high school students, and from volunteering in their local communities to promote sports and wellness.
The idea for the project came during their Social Medicine course, which is new to the undergraduate medical school curriculum. The course concentrates on the social, cultural and economic impact of medical phenomena and covers social medicine, service learning, medical ethics, epidemiology and population health.
As part of the course, students are asked to identify a demographic of interest and a challenge facing that demographic.
The group is working closely with Liane Powell, a public health nurse from the Middlesex-London Health Unit, who is active in the LGBTQ community and who has whole-heartedly endorsed the project.
Through focus groups and open forums, they will gather feedback on individuals’ experiences with health care and the changes they want to see and feel are needed during care. They will also speak with physicians to gain their perspectives and learn more about the resources that are in the community and the access or lack of access to the resources. They expect to be working on the project during the next three years.
While these future physicians became engaged with the project through a course, they believe that the School fosters a culture of advocacy by providing numerous opportunities for students to become involved in the community.
“The School has built a culture where it is understood that you need to strive to understand different perspectives and cultures, get involved and advocate for the most vulnerable of our populations,” said Vanderzwet.
That’s how Dr. Matt Harper, DDS’17, first became aware of the DOCSKids Program, a community outreach program aimed at providing preventative oral health care education to children in the London community. It’s supported entirely through student volunteers from Schulich Dentistry and Dr. Harper was quick to respond to a call for volunteers in his first year.
For the past four years, he volunteered with the Program, serving on its executive and presenting at least 12 sessions a year teaching young children and their families in the London community about good oral health.
So inspired by the impact the DOCSKids Program was making, Dr. Harper looked for additional outreach opportunities. During the summer of 2016, he travelled to Honduras with a group of paediatric dentists, nurses, and occupational and physiotherapists to provide care, education and training to community members.
Dr. Harper was struck by the conditions of some of the more isolated villages they visited. While he says they did provide treatment, the working conditions were poor and there was no electricity or running water.
“It was a humbling experience,” he said. “But I realized that I have a role to play in making change, improving access to care and education and advocating for my patients.”
Dr. Harper understands it’s easy for dentistry students to stay within the bubble of the University and focus only on their studies, but he believes that to truly live up to the values of the School and the profession of dentistry, you have to reach out to your patients and advocate for them.
Nancy Wu has made reaching out to those in need a major aspect of her life. She considers herself an advocate for the dignity of human beings who experience marginalization.
The third-year BMSc student channels her energies into a number of organizations, but she says her work with homeless people in Toronto and with Partners In Health Canada best illustrate her advocacy position and how she’s challenged herself to step up and make a difference.
Wu recalls walking down the streets of Toronto feeling afraid to make eye contact with homeless people. Frustrated with her failings to make a simple and honest connection with another human being, she found an opportunity to make amends and make a difference. She began volunteering at a community centre teaching art to people experiencing homelessness.
“I love art,” she said. “It’s one way to express yourself and feel like you have humanity, and I want to share that love to help people reclaim their sense of self.”
With an interest in social determinants of health, she has taken on leadership roles with Partners In Health Canada, a non-profit organization committed to global health equity. Wu is working to raise awareness about neglected health systems around the world. She has also organized campus events, such as global health case competitions, and this summer is an intern engaging students from across Canada.
Wu admits that it’s easy to get cynical about the state of things in the world right now, but believes that education and activism are antidotes to that cynicism. Through her work, she wants to instill some hope in her peers and encourage them to take action.
Anthony Li shares Wu’s commitment to action and has hundreds of hours of volunteer work to his credit. He has been recognized for his contributions with a Lieutenant Governor’s Award.
Now Li is pursuing a joint BMSc/HBA degree and is following his passion for youth advocacy, taking a leadership role with Plan International Canada’s Youth Advisory Council. A child rights organization, Plan International works with communities in many countries to alleviate child poverty so that children can realize their full potential.
Li is one of 10 organizers from across Canada serving on the Council who advocate for improving the lives of children and youth around the world.
This year, the Council became involved with Girls Belong Here, an initiative providing girls in Canada the opportunity to hold traditionally male positions of power. The project saw young women from across the country exchange positions with federal ministers in parliament for a day. Taking place on International Women’s Day, the project garnered national media attention and exploded on social media.
On the heels of the project, Li was chosen to attend the 61st Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations with Plan International, and his participation has further solidified his commitment to his advocacy work.
Ramina Adam, a PhD trainee in neuroscience, says she’s an advocate for women having equal opportunity to do what they love, to get the support they need, to not be discriminated against early on in their academic careers, and to feel confident pursuing their passion for science and research.
An avid reader of feminist literature for some time, Adam began noticing that the longer she progressed with her own academic career the fewer female professors she had, the fewer women were in the lab, and how women were spoken about differently – especially as it related to their intellectual abilities.
“I wanted to bring smart women together to talk about research and how to improve the research environment so we could inspire more young women to pursue their interests.”—Ramina Adam
“When I started in my lab, it was male dominated. Fortunately, I was able to find a group of women to network and socialize with,” said Adam.
Adam learned about and joined Western University’s Graduate Women in Neuroscience group. She serves as the graduate liaison for the University’s Undergraduate Women in Science group.
In 2016, she helped to organize the Young Women in STEM conference on campus, engaging more than 50 undergraduate students from science, engineering and math in poster sessions, workshops and guest speaker presentations. The conference also featured a graduate student expo, with trainees hosting booths and demonstrating experiments, as well as an industry expo.
“I wanted to bring smart women together to talk about research and how to improve the research environment so we could inspire more young women to pursue their interests,” she said.
Adam and her group are now planning two more conferences for 2018 for current undergraduate students.
She believes that she is in the perfect position and place to make a difference.
“As students in science, medicine and dentistry, we receive unique training. We can understand research and then effectively communicate and apply what we have learned to bring about positive change,” said Adam.
Through her experiences at the conference, Adam has become increasingly more comfortable speaking out about the lack of gender diversity in science and more inspired as an advocate.
Adam strives to be a role model for young women in science – whether that means achieving her goals in the lab or being an activist.
“I try to be the archetype of the female scientist, so when other young women see me, they can see themselves.”
Living our values - The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry proudly embraces the values of social responsibility, accountability, and diversity. Each day we work to live these and all our values. Learn more about the School's values, missions, and vision.