The CoM and our scientists

With this blog, I draw your attention to some important and exciting work being done by our scientists at the CoM. Their efforts directly contribute to growth and innovation in our research portfolio and their research is advancing care for patients and communities in Saskatchewan and beyond.

I have attended a number of meetings in the last few weeks focused on our ongoing work in restructuring our biomedical science departments and developing a new biomedical science degree program. I recently attended an excellent lecture in the BMI-PRISM Seminar series, delivered by Dr. Oleg Dmitriev, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology: Tracking the Shapeshifter: Domain Dynamics and Regulation of the Human Copper Transporter ATP7B. The third in this series that I’ve attended, I always find them fascinating and inspiring—even when my basic science knowledge gets pushed past its limits!

Our scientists have taken on the work of implementing significant changes that will benefit our students, college and university. I will share more in this vein, but first want to highlight why these graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty and staff are fundamentally important to our success.

Recently I met with the CoM Graduate Student Society (CMGSS) and our Assistant Dean Graduate Studies, Dr. David Cooper. Now that was a frank discussion! And a healthy reminder to me and all of us that the CoM does a lot more than train doctors. Indeed, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are key drivers of our research enterprise and ultimately a big driver of our reputation. The public expects competent doctors, but to rise in U15 rankings we need outstanding research by biomedical and population health scientists as well as clinician researchers, and for that we need outstanding graduate students and research fellows.

The CoM currently has 196 graduate students in our biomedical sciences, population health and health sciences programs, 80 students in the School of Rehabilitation Science and 41 postdoctoral fellows. We created the position of Assistant Dean Graduate Studies and held the subsequent external reviews of our graduate programs to improve the graduate and postdoctoral experience at the CoM.

Some significant highlights related to this overarching goal include the restructuring of the CoMGRAD Scholarship and CoM-PDF fellowship programs to partner with faculty supervisors to both expand the number and value of the awards available to our research trainees. Advancing our commitments to diversity and inclusivity, the CoMGRAD program now includes targeted awards in the areas of Indigenous Health and Sex and Gender Equality in Research. In this same vein, we have established a Parental Leave Grant to help bridge a gap in support faced by graduate student families. Of course, there is always more to be done and I look forward to ongoing discussions with the CMGSS, which has highlighted the area of learner wellness as a priority.

Eight months ago, the five departments of Anatomy; Physiology; Pharmacology; Biochemistry; and Microbiology and Immunology became two departments: Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology (APP); and Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology (BMI). Dr. Thomas Fisher is the APP interim department head and Dr. Bill Roesler is the BMI interim department head. Currently, searches are underway for permanent heads, and thus I have been to lots of meetings with our biomedical scientists.

APP, BMI and the College of Arts and Science are collaborating on the major initiative of developing a new undergraduate degree program in biomedical sciences. We actually have more than 800 students enrolled in the four current biomedical science degree programs. CoM faculty teach more than half of the classes that follow the foundational classes in areas that include chemistry, physics, biology and math, which are taught by faculty in Arts and Science.

Few people understand the full scope of the work done at the CoM and the critical role of our scientists in preparing students for the health professions (especially medicine, pharmacy, and veterinary medicine) or for graduate work and research careers.

Given the growth in the healthcare industry and the challenges it faces, several other Canadian universities have seen great competitive advantage in focusing on their biomedical science undergraduate programs. They have created new biomedical science degrees that prepare people for professional and graduate school, and industry careers. Thinking creatively and combining these with MBAs, Masters in Health Administration, law degrees, and so on—the possibilities are endless and the opportunities truly exciting!

Early this year I attended APP and BMI meetings where faculty unanimously voted to approve in principle the structure and proposed curricula for the new biomedical science (BMSC) program, in collaboration with the College of Arts and Sciences. The BMSC degree will have four streams with majors in: Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology; Neuroscience (working title); Cellular, Physiological and Pharmacological Sciences (working title); and Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences. These degrees will build on the excellent foundation of our current program with renewed priority on multidisciplinary training and experiential learning.

We have come a long way on this project thanks to the hard work and dedication of many people. Faculty members in both departments, particularly on the two undergraduate committees, have been working to create engaging and innovative new courses and majors.  At the meetings that I attended, there was a strong sense of enthusiasm for the new program that was reflected in the unanimous votes to accept the new programs in principle.  The merged departments are committed to creating and delivering outstanding undergraduate programs that will enhance the teaching and research missions of the College of Medicine.

The project has been led in the CoM by Dr. Scott Napper, supported ably by Dawn Giesbrecht and Sinead McGartland. Our APP and BMI department heads obviously have an important leadership role. And we have had wonderful collaboration with the College of Arts and Science, in particular Alexis Dahl, Director of the Programs Office, and Dr. Gordon DesBrisay, Vice-Dean, Academic.

The work within APP and BMI, and that with Arts and Science, are wonderful demonstrations of interdisciplinarity and collaboration as described in the University Plan 2025. The feedback I hear from our faculty is the mergers to our current APP and BMI departments are going very well; many are seeing the advantages of interdisciplinary work and experiencing great collegiality in these new departments.

On another note of good news, the CoM fared well in the latest round of CIHR project grants with five faculty being successful: Linda Chelico, Humphrey Fonge, Malcolm King and Alexandra King, and Shahid Ahmed. They matched the national success rate and will receive just over $4.8 million in total.

When you hear my elevator speech about our priorities of research, Indigenous health, learner wellness and faculty and staff engagement, I always preface those comments by noting excellence in education at the CoM as a given. As I said, we do a lot more than graduate doctors! That norm of excellence is applied to all of our educational programs and our biomedical scientists are doing outstanding work to ensure their undergraduate and graduate programs meet that standard.

As usual, my door is open and I am always glad to hear your feedback.

How diverse are we?

The CoM does not have comprehensive equity information for all of its faculty and academic leadership. This information is needed in order for us to assess whether we are living up to our values and principles focused on diversity and inclusion.

Among the CoM values we are committed to:

  • fairness and equitable treatment
  • inclusiveness

Among the CoM principles we believe in:

  • different ways of knowing, learning and being
  • diversity, equality and human dignity
  • reconciliation

Initially, due to the timeline for accreditation reporting requirements related to UGME accreditation element 3.3, we will gather data on representation among our faculty and academic leadership of three groups: visible minorities, women, and people of Indigenous ancestry. It is important to note that this is a first step in responding to the feedback of our accreditors with regard to diversity, which included their finding that we have no mechanism currently to measure diversity among our leadership and faculty.

The requirement for accreditation is outlined in the Committee on Accreditation of Canadian Medical Schools (CACMS) language in standard 3 and delineated in element 3.3 within that standard. I share some brief content from both here:

Standard 3: Academic and Learning Environments
A medical school ensures that its medical education program occurs in professional, respectful, and intellectually stimulating academic and clinical environments, recognizes the benefits of diversity, and promotes students’ attainment of competencies required of future physicians.

3.3 Diversity/Pipeline Programs and Partnerships
A medical school in accordance with its social accountability mission has effective policies and practices in place, and engages in ongoing, systematic, and focused recruitment and retention activities, to achieve mission-appropriate diversity outcomes among its students, faculty, senior academic and educational leadership, and other relevant members of its academic community. These activities include the appropriate use of effective policies and practices, programs or partnerships aimed at achieving diversity among qualified applicants for medical school admission and the evaluation of policy and practices, program or partnership outcomes.

In alignment with USask priorities, we will also gather data on persons with disabilities among these two groups. The data will be gathered over the next few months using a short, four-question survey distributed by email this week to all individuals on the CoM faculty and in academic leadership positions.

We will aim for the highest possible participation in this survey, and with that in mind will be providing reminders and updates on the survey and participation levels from now until late April, when the survey will close.

Initially, we will make use of the survey results in preparing the report due to the CACMS in December 2019 for element 3.3, but the data will also become part of ongoing record keeping and data collection on diversity at the CoM.

Going forward, we will be expanding the diversity categories to be more inclusive. As well, we will continue to work in alignment with the university on diversity goals across our entire college community. We will rely on data we collect to support decision making and help us determine where we will focus our efforts.

We’ve made progress in many areas of diversity, and we have people on our team who have been leaders in this area for many years, who we thank and continue to rely on for guidance. Members of our Indigenous Health Committee are a clear example. Still, much needs to be done.

I ask that all of our academic leaders and faculty members take a few minutes to complete the survey when it reaches you later this week. Did I mention that it is very short? Only four questions that will take only a minute or two to complete! It’s a further important step towards being a more diverse and inclusive college. And while this work supports accreditation requirements and university priorities, most importantly our path to greater diversity and inclusion aligns with our values as a college.

It’s all about kindness

I hope all are keeping as warm as can be during these beautiful but cold Saskatchewan winter days. My response when weather comes up (and it seems we talk about it a lot here in Saskatchewan) is remember—we have the best summers in Canada! Sometimes I add that the best thing about when I lived in Halifax was that you could be guaranteed summer would start by August 1!

A number of events and comments in the last few weeks have reminded me of the importance of mental health, and the work that needs to be done to support the mental health of ourselves and our families, friends, learners, staff and faculty.

First, we saw “Blue Monday” come and go, a popular urban myth without objective evidence. Of course, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real mental health problem, and if the concept of Blue Monday encourages us to think about those around us that may be suffering, it may not be all bad. On the other hand, many myths about mental health are much more harmful.

This leads me to the next reminder— Bell Let’s Talk Day on January 31 saw 145,442,699 digital interactions and $7,272,134.95 raised. I will declare no conflict of interest and I will say the initiative to encourage discourse is great, but we must strive more to move to action on mental health.

Bell’s initiative has four pillars: anti-stigma, care and access, research and workplace health. Of course, all are relevant to a medical college. All of this reminds me of the very first public event I attended after arriving at the CoM in June 2014. I was at a banquet at the Bessborough. It was a lovely evening to be at an outside event but due to a thunderstorm quickly rolling in, the event was moved inside. Clara Hughes (Olympic medalist in both speed skating and cycling) spoke on mental health. I particularly recall her comments on the stigma associated with mental illness. Stigma is the number one reason why many people do not seek help.

The mind-body divide is well entrenched in western ways of knowing and contributes greatly to the stigma many of us attach to mental illness. There are more holistic ways we can think about health and mental wellness, and we can learn so much from Indigenous colleagues and learners in this regard. For example, “The medicine wheel represents the alignment and continuous interaction of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realities.” (Source of quote/more information) In terms of the medicine wheel teachings, I acknowledge there are many teachings and many interpretations associated with the medicine wheel.

Concerning stigma, Bell Let’s Talk outlines five things that we all can do to end stigma: language matters; educate yourself, be kind, listen and ask, and talk about it.

And that leads me to the last event I participated in this week on mental health, which hopefully ties together some of the thoughts in this blog. I was fortunate to attend a banquet on Thursday night with Scott Livingstone and colleagues from the Saskatchewan Health Authority at Whitecap Dakota First Nation. The Saskatoon Tribal Council organized the event in support of the Walking Together Youth Gathering, an initiative on supporting Indigenous youth.

The keynote speaker was Jordin Tootoo,  the first player of Inuk descent and first player from Nunavut (Rankin Inlet) to play in the NHL (four teams from 2003 to 17). He is also celebrated for his contributions to Canada’s silver medal team in the 2003 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. Jordin provided a powerful and inspirational talk about his journey from his childhood to present with a frank description of the trauma he endured and the challenges he suffered from mental health and addiction to alcohol. His talk was painful, tender and yet hopeful. And at the end he told some great hockey stories for all the Canadians in the room.

I will leave you with the following quote from Jordin that resonated powerfully with me:

“We all fight a fight nobody knows about – It’s all about kindness.”

So be warm out there, take care of each other, and as always, I am always open to your input and feedback.