The Pathway to Graduate Studies (P2GS) program is returning in 2020 to offer research opportunities for Indigenous students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) at UWinnipeg. The intent of this program is to support Indigenous students in natural science and engineering fields, introduce students to research opportunities, and encourage students to continue with their undergraduate programs and eventually into graduate programs.
Throughout the four-week program, running from May 4 – 29, 2020, students will engage in science education during the morning and participate in a paid research program under the supervision of a UWinnipeg faculty member during the afternoon. In our first year in 2019, all students who applied were given placements.
Dr. Melanie Martin (Department of Physics), led the application to The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and worked with the UWinnipeg’s Research and Innovation Office to get the program started. Martin along with Dr. Nora Casson (Canada Research Chair in Environmental Influences on Water Quality, Department of Geography), who has been highly involved since the inception of the program share some insight into what a student can expect in the program.
Q&A with Dr. Melanie Martin and Dr. Nora Casson
What inspired the concept for the P2GS program and what sets it apart from other undergraduate programs?
Martin: Dr. Jeff Martin (Canada Research Chair in Fundamental Symmetries in Subatomic Physics) was involved in the Freshman Summer Institute at The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as a supervisor. We have believed for a long time that a similar program at UWinnipeg to inspire Indigenous students to study science and give them some basic foundations in math and science to help them as they pursue their degree would be very beneficial.
NSERC expanded the mandate of their PromoScience program to include undergraduate Indigenous students studying science so we decided to submit a grant application to create the program. Andrea McCluskey from the Aboriginal Student Services Centre, and Jennifer Cleary and Marina de Luna, both formerly from the Research Office, helped shape the program to be what it is today. I know there are many Indigenous students at UWinnipeg studying science. Yet, many of the Indigenous students studying science on our campus do not know the this program. Many believe they are the only ones in their departments.
This program will allow students to meet each other and make connections which will last through their time at UWinnipeg and beyond. Evan Loeb, a student in biochemistry, and Melissa Anderson, a student in physics, started the UWinnipeg chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) so that Indigenous students studying science can meet each other and learn about all the opportunities available to students at UWinnipeg.
Casson: What sets P2GS apart from other undergraduate research opportunities is the focus on students in the early part of their undergraduate careers. Sometimes the idea of being a scientist or working in a lab can be intimidating, and this provides students with the opportunity to see what it’s really like! The goal is to introduce the students early so they keep coming back to science and research as they move through their degrees.
Martin: The P2GS program is only four-weeks long and is completely free to students and faculty. It allows students to hold summer jobs, or spend time with family, rather than spend the whole summer doing research. It is meant to expose the students to research and not fully immerse them in a project.
In the four-weeks the student will complete a small project and learn what it is like to be in the lab. They can see if they like doing research before committing to a full summer of it. The Indigenous Summer Scholars Program (ISSP) and Undergraduate Student Research Awards programs are 12 and 16 weeks respectively of full-time research.
The students in all of these programs are paid the same hourly rate, but the P2GS program is shorter. The benefit for the students is to get a feeling of research and see if they like the field or topic before committing to a full summer. The benefit to the faculty members is that they do not have to pay the students’ salaries to do research in the lab.
The extra benefit to the P2GS program is that the morning is spent in informal classes where Indigenous senior undergraduates and graduate students teach math and science in a small setting where students can ask questions so that they are better prepared for classes in the Fall. The students also can get to know each other better because we offer accommodation in the dormitories during the program.
What type of scholar do you think would be a great fit for this program?
Martin: A student who wants to know what science is all about is a student who is a great fit for the program. No experience is necessary. We are not expecting the student to win a Nobel Prize during the program or discover something new. We are hoping the students get hands on experience to see if science research, and graduate studies are for them. Students who want to improve their grade point average (GPA) or get ahead in course work are encouraged to be a part of this program and enjoy learning from the morning classes. Any Indigenous student interested in science who wants to meet other Indigenous students interested in science should apply to the program.
What opportunities does the program provide for scholars?
Casson: The program provides an opportunity for scholars to spend a month immersed in science at the University of Winnipeg! In the morning, they take classes and participate in activities and field trips having to do with the types of science they’re likely to encounter during their first couple years of undergrad. In the afternoon they work with a faculty mentor in a research lab on a specific project. Students last year took so much away from these experiences, including participating in the Randy Kobes Poster Symposium, presenting at scientific conferences, etc. They also formed a strong community among the students and with the faculty mentors, which has continued throughout the year.
Martin: The basic opportunities are getting ahead in course work, trying science research, and building up a network. The students will learn to present their research in a fun and relaxing environment, beyond that there could be other opportunities for students. Last year Sydney Leggett presented her research at 3 different science events and met Michelle Obama. The program gave Sidney confidence to pursue more in-depth research opportunities. She was one of four students across Canada to be welcomed into the Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astrophysics Research Institute’s 2020 cross-disciplinary internship program, a unique opportunity that provides non-physics majors with $10,000 in funding to participate in astroparticle physics research.
The students will learn about other opportunities on campus, such as the AISES chapter, the ISSP and USRA programs, and graduate school. Being selected to participate in the program also looks good on the students’ CVs and can help lead to other research opportunities and graduate studies.
What are you most excited about for this year’s program?
Casson: I’m excited to meet the students, to learn about what drew them to science and to see the awesome work that they do over the month! I’m also excited to build out the community of P2GS students and to see all the great things they do as they progress through their undergraduate degrees.
Martin: I am most excited about the number of faculty members from different departments across campus who want to work with P2GS students. Well, maybe I am more excited to meet the new students and see them grow their understanding and love for science. I will be really excited to have a large group of students.
In 2019, Casson worked with Métis student Hannah Tuckett. Casson was thrilled to see how well Tuckett read and analyzed literature related to her project. “It was well above the level I’ve seen of other students at her stage, and demonstrates the great potential she has to continue in scientific research,” said Casson.
Hannah, who is currently enrolled in biology and education, shared her experience in the program.
Why did you join the Pathway to Graduate Studies program?
I joined P2GS as I had never had the opportunity to do research work before and It was something I really wanted to get into. I also wanted to join as I wanted to someday maybe continue my education above a undergraduate but I did not have any idea what graduate studies would be like and P2GS program offered that opportunity.
How was your experience connecting and networking with students and faculty with similar backgrounds and interests?
During my time in the program, I was able to connect and network with some amazing people; not only with the professor that I worked with, but also with some other fellow students that had more research experience and I was able to learn more about my project with their help. I also worked with a professor who came to Canada to do research on a contract. It was amazing to work with him and learn about other research opportunities that are available.
In the program, you engaged in a research program with Dr. Nora Casson. Can you tell us about the project and how the work may influence your next step in your academic future?
I worked on a project from Churchill, MB. Though I was not able to actually travel there to get my own soil samples; it was still really great to work on the project. Basically, I was researching the effects of global warming on the permafrost in the Arctic Tundra and how that effects the ecosystem and biodiversity of Churchill, and also the increasing rates of carbon dioxide that is being released as a result of warmer temperatures. This research project has definitely given me a greater desire to learn more about the environment and has given me a love and understanding of doing research, something that I would love to do more of.
P2GS is a great opportunity for Indigenous students in the early years of their degree, who have either declared a major in science or indicated a strong interest in science, to be inspired by the many opportunities and supports available to Indigenous science students at UWinnipeg.