As high school students, Ikran Ali And Zaki Hassan | We didn’t even realize they could pursue careers in laboratory medicine and health research.
Today, Ali is a fifth-year doctoral student at the Institute of Medical Sciences at the University of Toronto College of Medicine, where she conducts orthopedic research on bone healing and infection. Hassan, meanwhile, is a second-year master’s student in the college’s department of biochemistry researching the structural biology of coronavirus proteins.
Both belong to a group called Say Somaali that recently hosted a virtual high school job fair in an effort to better educate young people about potential career paths.
Ali and Hassan recently spoke to Gabriel Girouday About the work they do with Say Somaali.
How did the idea of a virtual career fair start?
Hassan: In 2019, the Somali Student Association of U of T held an event called Postgraduate Demystification, and we had an amazing turnout of nearly 100 people. We have realized that there is a huge gap to be filled in the Somali community in terms of connecting mentors and trainees. It led us to think of more programming around mentorship.
Our aim for the Virtual Career Fair was to highlight Somali professionals from various fields, such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), healthcare, business and social sciences, so that they can share their experiences and insights with high school students.
He was one of our speakers Sahra Gedleh, a family physician in Mississauga and a lecturer in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Timerte Medicine. The event was open to registration for high school students across Canada.
How did you plan the event?
but: Say Somaali does various programs – like mentorship program, fellowship program and summer training for high school students.
Last summer, we decided we’d like to host a large virtual job fair where high school students can sign up for sessions of their choice. We worked with four high school students trained at Say Somaali to determine what kind of experts they wanted to listen to.
We already have over 100 Somali professionals who are part of what we call our success network, who have given us amazing help so far. They were the first ones we looked at as speakers.
Why did you decide to participate in this initiative?
but: In terms of medicine and health research, many interested high school and college students may not know where to start, or know what they need to do to be competitive to apply to undergraduate programs.
It is really important that students get to know fellow students, researchers or clinicians who have the same upbringing. Being able to connect with someone who can tell them the characteristics and generalities of the role is also critical. I know students who struggle and try to figure out, “What do I do when I finish high school or college? Or what programs should I do?”
Hassan: The primary goal of having people who are part of our success network is to identify mentors who have the same upbringing and have had to overcome similar barriers, and can speak from a familiar place.
How do your personal experiences inform your participation?
Hassan: One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of students in high school, if they have an interest in a science career, they immediately think of medicine. I feel there is really no exposure to other scientific careers.
When I was in high school, I had no idea that I could do what I’m doing now – that I could go to graduate school and be a principal scientist or researcher. Part of the Virtual Career Fair’s role was to showcase the range of STEM careers that go beyond medicine. And it’s to show people that there are a huge number of resources and hopefully a group of people that can help you get there.
but: Zaki and I are first generation Somali Canadians and we don’t know many people who have taken these career paths before us here in Canada. The goal is that once we are in those positions, we can offer guidance to others 20-30 years from now.
In my case, I discovered a lot of information by accident. All I knew was that I wanted to do research, but I didn’t really know the path and so it was just trial and error and trying to figure out how to get into it. I wanted to be in a lab, and read faculty profiles to explore the people I wanted to work with.
I think part of the reason I’m doing this is to try to make that realization easier for others, so they don’t have to go through the same obstacles. If you know what you’re doing, it’s easier to know where you’re going.
What is your advice to young students?
Hassan: One barrier at the undergraduate level is getting into the laboratory as a research student. Once you have that first experience, I feel it is much easier to hit every other research opportunity going forward.
It took me a lot of effort and energy to get my first research position. I would say through this experience, I learned what I was supposed to do. So now I can give others advice on how to get their feet in the door more easily and follow their passion.
In general, and especially for someone who does not have access to peer mentors or faculty, I would say that bulk emails are not as effective as one might think. A much better alternative is to start your search by narrowing down your area of interest and making your communication with professors very brief and specific.
Researchers are more likely to give their energy to someone who is genuinely interested in their work. I also recommend people check out official programs like the Applicants Support Initiative for Research (RASI), and other resources, if available.
but: I think it’s all about highlighting yourself and letting people know what your interests are, so that anyone in a position can help you out. It is ideal to learn the skills and find people who can tell you what to do and how to succeed.
I ask people to find others who share their interests, and to identify programs that can help – like this one.