They started as teenage members of a Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH) outreach program and then went on to study biological sciences at U of T Scarborough. Now, the two undergraduates have received $33,000 to conduct research into which programs and services high school students in the community find most valuable.
The grant is a rare accomplishment for anyone in the early stages of their post-secondary journey. Second-year student Maimuna Akhter and third-year student Maha Khan received the award from Mitacs, a non-profit national research organization that supports innovation through partnerships with Canadian academia, government and industry.
Ryan Hinds, DLSPH’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, describes Akhter and Khan as “brilliant and exceptionally dedicated.” A few years ago while still in high school, Akhter and Khan met Hinds through DLSPH’s Outreach and Access Program. This initiative introduces high school students from underrepresented communities to various career options within public health, and provides mentorship, enrichment opportunities and other supports as they progress at the University of Toronto.
Akhter and Khan have participated in DLSPH’s outreach program ever since that first meeting. Last year, program leaders challenged them to pursue a research topic. The students chose to partner with The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO), an agency that provides services to communities including Thorncliffe Park. Starting this fall, Akhter and Khan will conduct focus groups and surveys to determine which programs and services Thorncliffe Park youth benefit from the most. Through their findings, TNO can refine its offerings.
Akhter says the idea for the project came from their own experiences with TNO as teenagers. “I grew up in the communities of Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park, and I was a high school student at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute. Throughout my years there, I felt quite supported by The Neighbourhood Organization,” says Akhter. She explains that teachers and parents would share their opinions on TNO programming, but she and Khan saw an opportunity for youth voices to be heard. “I wanted to give students the opportunity to speak out about what programs would be helpful to them and how TNO could better facilitate their completion of high school.”
Hinds adds that one advantage to this research project is that youth may feel more comfortable opening up to younger researchers. “The idea is that talking to other students, they [the participants] can be more transparent and more open around what has not been working.”
Their research supervisor, Prof. Julia O’Sullivan, says that some of Akhter and Khan’s data collection methods are innovative. “A lot of what they had proposed was new to me,” explains O’Sullivan. “They taught me a lot, especially about word cloud polls and Instagram accounts.”
O’Sullivan says that because of the particular research design involved, they enlisted the advice of Maggie Dunlop, Director of Monitoring Evaluation and Learning at the Martin Family Initiative.
I wanted to give students the opportunity to speak out about what programs would be helpful to them and how TNO could better facilitate their completion of high school
Khan says that it was challenging at times when preparing their proposal for the ethics board and funding. “Sometimes it would feel tedious because you would have to wait a long time for the responses to come in, and then you’d be on the edge wondering, are they going to approve it?”
While part of the funding supports subscriptions to data collection tools, Akhter says the award money will also fund gift card incentives that show participants their involvement is valued. “We want to thank them for their time and so we’re providing gift cards and lunch for the day. If they’re missing out on volunteering or work, they’ll know we appreciate their time.”
Akhter and Khan say they are grateful to have been introduced to new opportunities through DLSPH’s Outreach and Access Program. “It was the most meaningful club that I joined in high school,” lauds Khan, adding that the program has “helped me make a goal for myself that whatever career that I choose, I want to make sure I enjoy what I am doing.”
Although it is early to tell where the students’ paths may go, Akhter and Khan both agree that because of this experience, they’ve discovered new passions in research, communications and community relations. Research has “become a solid-running career option for me now,” says Khan.