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Inspiring young minds: Co-op program teaches high school students about working in health care research

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Two co-op students in a research lab

By Kirsten Millar

A group of high school students now have a better understanding of research in the health care setting, thanks to co-op programs offered at their schools.

Three 11th and 12th grade students recently completed 80 hours of work, both individually and as a group. Through their learning experiences, the students gained a broad understanding of what research is, what goes into it, and the different avenues that it can take.

“We were starting the program from scratch in research,” says Andrea Dean, Research Education Program Manager with Nova Scotia Health. “Nova Scotia Health has done student co-op programs before, but this was the first time we embedded high school students into research teams. This was also the first year since the COVID-19 pandemic that the program has been able to run in-person which added to the excitement.”

“I wanted the students to see the patient experience and also see behind the scenes, which is broad and spans study design, writing of the protocol, research ethics, research quality, library services, planning participant visits, and data analysis,” says Dean. “Research is 90% behind the scenes work, but the 10% is where you get to see the difference you’re making in patients’ lives. That’s what makes research so rewarding, unique and dynamic.”

Students learned more about research methods, research quality, oncology, hematology, the brain lab, business development, epidemiology, radiology, pharmacy, pathology, biomedical engineering, diagnostic imaging, laboratory medicine, community health and epidemiology, and the department of medicine and infectious diseases.

A number of different teams hosted the students during their co-op. “The program wouldn’t have been possible without all of these research teams that brought students in, and without the help of volunteer services who coordinated the program,” says Dean.

“It was a very positive experience for our team. It is rejuvenating to see your work through fresh eyes. The students were very engaged in the process and asked excellent questions,” says Heather Beaton, Research Manager at the Atlantic Clinical Cancer Research Unit.

“Our research team enjoyed showing these students the reason and passion behind the work we do,” adds Trisha Hudson, Research Manager in Hematology.

PhD researchers came in to talk about their career paths and how they got to where they are, and Physician researchers also came in to talk about the medical school route of research. “These experts provided a form of mentorship for the students,” says Dean.

“We learned about MRI and CT scan equipment, and we even got to use the MRI scanner ourselves to do imaging of pieces of fruit. That was really fun,” adds Daniel Gravina, a grade 12 co-op student from Halifax West High School.

The students also got to attend Dalhousie University’s Medicine Research Day, where they had the opportunity to see presentations by and interact with research teams.

This experience has opened the students’ eyes, and they say it has influenced their future plans.

The co-op program gave Brenna Griffin, a grade 12 student from Bayview High School, the confidence to decide to go to university and take a Bachelor of Science. “Before the co-op, I had two options: either go to Nova Scotia Community College for the medical laboratory technology program or go to Saint Mary’s University to study biology. The co-op program showed me that I would rather study biology,” says Griffin. “It was really cool to see what scientists can do. It showed me that it’s what I want to do next year at university.”

Gravina also gained clarity about his future through the co-op program. “After this experience, I feel like I actually understand how things work in health care, and now I’m sure I want to do something in that field,” says Gravina. He has been accepted to Dalhousie University’s Bachelor of Science program and hopes to go to medical school one day.

Gravina and Griffin both agree that they would recommend the co-op to other students. “It was a great experience. People were always friendly and happy to answer our questions. It was super interesting and I’m really glad I had the opportunity to be in the program,” Gravina adds.

Dean hopes to run the co-op program again in the coming fall and spring semesters of high school, with the potential to take on more students. “It feels like we’ve really inspired these young minds,” she says.