Supporting the next generation of leaders and innovators in medicine
By Tiffany Barnes-Huggins
Marketing and Communications Officer
Graduate students at the Faculty of Medicine have the potential to move the needle on some of the most pressing health issues facing Canadians today. However, their valuable contributions and innovations in the field of medicine can sometimes come at a high cost.
From life threatening diseases to chronic ailments, graduate students are at the front lines performing cutting-edge research to develop new treatments and help save lives. However, graduate students at the University of Ottawa and across Ontario are struggling financially due primarily to rising inflation rates and stalled government funding.
To put things in perspective, scholarships provided by the federal government to cover the cost of living and tuition of master’s and PhD students has remained largely unchanged since the early 2000s. While the University of Ottawa offers competitive scholarships, bursaries and a guaranteed minimum stipend to graduate students, these sources of funding are limited. The university itself is under financial strain and as a result cannot resolve these issues alone. To compound matters, as graduate students receive a stipend, they are often ineligible for additional financial aid through the University.
Dr. Nadine Wiper-Bergeron understands this struggle particularly well, as a professor in the department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and the assistant dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies in the Faculty of Medicine. She not only trains graduate students, but also works at the Faculty level to ensure high quality graduate programs and student experience. She understands first-hand the financial burdens that some graduate students face as well as the limits the University faces in securing funding to support them.
“Our graduate students, in the context of their training, are important participants in the research engine. They work long hours at the bench, spend a significant amount of time reading the scientific literature, developing new ideas and research questions, performing experiments and testing models, analyzing data and communicating findings. It is more than a full-time job in terms of hours and intellectual contribution and as such can make it challenging for students to work outside of their graduate training in our field,” Dr. Wiper-Bergeron recounts.
According to Dr. Wiper-Bergeron, the costs associated with obtaining a graduate degree at the Faculty of Medicine, coupled with the rising costs of living, can be a significant barrier to students that are interested in applying to graduate programs and can prevent current students from completing their graduate studies.
So how can supporters of the Faculty of Medicine help relieve the stresses felt by graduate students?
According to Tyler Smith, a PhD student in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology (BMI) department and co-president of the BMI Graduate Student Association at the University of Ottawa, the answer is simple.
“We need more scholarships to cover the cost of tuition, along with more funding for stipend increases to align with inflation. Otherwise, our programs will continue to lose quality PhD candidates, and quickly," he says.
For international students, like Toka Hussein who is currently pursuing a PhD in biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine, additional financial support could make a significant difference in the mental well-being of learners.
“International students cannot afford to fly back home to see their family, as the round-trip ticket to India, for example, is at least a full month of stipend pay,” says Hussein. The emotional strain of being far away from family and feelings of homesickness is an additional burden to bear when some of these students are also facing financial stresses as they pursue their degrees.
Scholarships are a great place to start, for those who are looking to support the faculty. Contributing to funds or scholarships for international students, in particular, because this group of learners often has less access to scholarships at the master’s level.
Scholarships that look at increasing diversity is also an area where the Faculty could use support.
“Diversity of thought is what makes science so amazing,” Dr. Wiper-Bergeron exclaims. “To be able to support diversity in our training environments and bring people in with different experiences to work on a problem—I mean, that's supposed to be the ideal of what we want to do. Scholarships aimed at promoting diversity by supporting international students and students from under-represented groups will get us closer to this goal.”
For supporters that are interested in moving the needle in a particular area of research or innovation, their contributions can be matched to scholars working in that area. By contributing to these funds, supporters are giving graduate students the opportunity to make significant changes and advances in the scientific landscape.
Lastly, contributing to a merit scholarship is another practical way to ease the financial strain that some graduate students face. As mentioned earlier, graduate students do not qualify for many of the financial aid scholarships provided by the university when they receive a stipend. Therefore, contributing to a merit scholarship, that is awarded to students based on academic excellence, can supplement stipends and help combat the rising costs of living.
Donors, supporters or alumni who are interested in contributing to a scholarship or fund to support a graduate student can contact Kerry Winnemore, Alumni Relations and Community Engagement.
There are also non-financial ways to help graduate students in the Faculty.
Career mentorship opportunities can also go a long way with graduate students. The opportunity to interact with alumni who have graduated from MSc and PhD programs at the Faculty of Medicine, can show current learners how to leverage their education and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Faculty strives to create connections with its alumni as their experience is invaluable and can ensure that the Faculty's graduate programs stay cutting edge and in line with what the job market is looking for. Their market knowledge can prepare graduate students for what awaits them once they graduate. Alumni who interested in providing mentorship services to graduate students can contact Kerry Winnemore, Alumni Relations and Community Engagement.
Overall, a collective and multidimensional effort that addresses the needs of the various learner groups, is required to reduce the financial burdens felt by graduate students. The future of Canadian innovation and leadership in science and medicine depends on it!