Women in Science: Shad Alum reflects on the important role female mentors played in her award-winning scientific research journey
When Kayla Gauthier was invited to present her research in the field of Health Sciences at the Global Undergraduate Awards (UA) in Dublin, Ireland last November, she felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride in the work she was being recognized for by one of the world’s leading academic awards programs. She had wanted to pursue a career in Health Sciences since high school, and she felt as though she was hitting the milestones needed to achieve her goals.
“The awards ceremony was an amazing experience. The range of research from all the different categories was incredible and highlighted such thoughtful engagement with research questions. Being able to connect with bright minds from all over the world was inspiring.”
During her summer at Shad in 2017, Kayla already had ambitions to complete her degree in Health Sciences. She was excited to attend the Shad program at Memorial University where she could explore the east coast while visiting a campus that included one of Canada’s medical schools. The experience was thrilling, particularly an anatomy lab that was unlike anything she had engaged with in her high school science classes. “It was such a fun experience, a world apart from anything I had done up until that point.”
Coming from the small town of Blyth, Ontario, Shad was Kayla’s first experience interacting with a more diverse group of students and exploring parts of Canada on her own. It helped her to grow in ways she hadn’t anticipated, pushing her outside of her comfort zone and opening her up to pursuing novel pathways. She believes she would not have had the confidence to submit her research paper to the UA had it not been for experiences like Shad.
“I had the best time; Shad was the highlight of high school for me. It was the first time I met students from different backgrounds from mine which offered amazing learning opportunities coming from a small town. The experience of travelling away from home on my own really made me more comfortable taking risks and reaching for opportunities.”
When Kayla started her Honours Specialization in Health Sciences degree at The University of Western Ontario (UWO) in 2019, she had not yet decided in which capacity she hoped to work in healthcare. She had always loved the practical side of science, but her time in post-secondary fostered a new appreciation for the importance of healthcare research and policy.
Her participation in a Health Studies International Internship at Karolinska Institute in Sweden solidified her desire to pursue a research path. She spent five weeks completing a research internship at Karolinska Institute in the department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society.
“My primary role was co-authoring a systematic review and meta-analysis on home-based nursing interventions on improving self-care outcomes of people with heart failure.”
Her experience working with an amazing team of all female scholars during her time at Karolinska Institute, as well as the female professors who had mentored her during her undergraduate studies, both reinforced her desire to pursue a research-focused academic path and highlighted for her the incredible contributions women were making to the sciences and the important role they play for other women pursuing careers in STEAM.
“We need women leaders in the sciences to serve as role models and mentors. One of my undergraduate professors, Dr. Aleksandra Zecevic played a really important role in my own path by opening doors for me in academia, including the internship at Karolinska Institute which was a pivotal moment in my education and research journey.”
She feels programs like Shad offer young girls exploring STEAM those same kinds of female role models that can be integral in motivating them to continue into academic programs and career fields where they often represent a minority. This is, in part, why Kayla chose to work as a Program Assistant (PA) at Shad’s University of Prince Edward Island campus, acting as a mentor to the next generation.
“At Shad, it feels like everyone belongs. There are opportunities to engage with people from all different walks of life exploring different careers and life pathways. It really helps to show the breadth of possibilities open to you and helps students see themselves in a multitude of roles.”
Kayla started the Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Master’s Program at UWO last fall and has decided to focus on Public Health Ethics and Policy. She loves the challenge of tackling the complex problems associated with this field. It reminds her of the kind of problem-solving thinking she was first introduced to at Shad with the design challenge.
“Ethics is fascinating to me. It’s complicated and has to be broken down and viewed from all sides, which is challenging and exciting at the same time. Shad introduced me to that kind of thinking, breaking a problem down into smaller pieces and then reassembling it as you sort through the problem. It’s an exciting process.”
The paper she won the Undergraduate Award for, which looked at important ethical healthcare questions that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic, has really pushed her towards the research path she’s chosen. It showed her how crucial it is to understand and plan for healthcare challenges, like the arrival of novel viruses, and how our policy is only as good as the research behind it.
“The pandemic has shown us so many issues that need to be addressed regarding the healthcare system, but finding short term solutions is really difficult when there are so many opposing sides. As researchers, our job is to provide the evidence and make the case for what is best for the Canadian public.”
She will also continue to bring a critical female perspective to her academic pursuits to ensure everyone has a seat at the table when important decisions are being made. She hopes her presence will make a difference in helping other females pursue their own important life paths.
“I hope that in my career, I can pay forward the support and mentorship I received to help support the next generation of female STEAM leaders.”