Linking high school students with researchers


Shiv Sharma will be looking at tumour antigen expression on breast cancer cells at Robarts Research Institute this fall. He’s not a graduate student or a postdoc. Sharma is in grade 12 and is getting exposure to real-world medical research at Robarts as part of a program called Partners in Experiential Learning, or PEL.
PEL is based in London and is the only program of its kind in Canada. It links high school students with research supervisors in the medical sciences as part of a cooperative education opportunity. Students gain hands-on lab experience, while at the same time earning credits toward their high school degrees.
“I am doing something that my peers don’t have the opportunity to do, that in itself is pretty cool,” said Sharma. “And that fact that I am able to delve into these experiences rather than reading a textbook or copying notes down, really helps to see how things really work.”
Sharma is one of eight high school students currently working with supervisors at Robarts. Across the city, there are a total of 73 students placed at London Health Sciences Centre, St. Joseph’s Health Care London, Lawson Health Research Institute, with researchers at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, and in the basic sciences at Western University. Retired chemistry teacher, Rodger Dusky, is the force behind PEL and says he does this because he is passionate about it. “I have a passion for helping young people navigate the academic pathways to careers in the medical sciences,” he said. Many of the students who started in the PEL program have gone on to be doctors, dentists and research scientists themselves.
Robarts researcher Greg Dekaban has been a mentor as part of PEL since the beginning and he has watched his students go on to do amazing things with their careers. “It gives them real-world exposure to working in medical sciences, and working in a real work environment,” he said. “They have a leg-up on so many other students in terms of the competitive environment that’s out there. I think that that’s one of the major selling features.”
The payback of the program isn’t just for the students. When Robarts researcher and postdoctoral fellow Gabrielle Siegers agreed to be a mentor to a PEL student, she didn’t anticipate that she would gain as much benefit from the program as the student did.
“The enthusiasm and excitement that the student brought to the lab reignited by own excitement in my project,” she said. “And the student asked me questions that made me see things from a whole different perspective.”