Inaugural winners of the Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity will help Indigenous students soar in science at the University of Winnipeg

Date published: 2023-08-29 11:45:00

Even as a child, Gracie Grift knew she had a natural curiosity, a gift that would eventually guide her down her life’s path.

“From a young age, I always had this interest in science, research and medicine,” recalls Grift, 21, who grew up in Winnipeg’s north-end. “Indigenous Peoples have always been scientists. There is a level of ancestral knowledge we all have in us.”

Despite that passion, as a young Indigenous woman, Grift still had trouble envisioning a life in academia.

“I’m from the province of Manitoba where 18% of the population is Indigenous, yet I’ve never had an Indigenous teacher or professor. There was no one to lead me down that path,” she adds. “It’s disheartening. I often asked myself: ‘When are we going to break into this world?’”

Then Grift saw an advertisement for the Pathways Program at the University of Winnipeg. The program connects Indigenous students with professors and mentors in the natural sciences and engineering at different stages of their university careers. It provides opportunities for students to improve their academic skills and gain research experience by working in laboratories early on to foster a love of science and research. The program also works to remove barriers to success by supporting childcare, housing, internet access and transportation costs, when necessary. The goal is to eventually see more Indigenous Peoples in leadership roles in science, research and academia.

“We hope to increase the retention of Indigenous students, which at present remains lower than non-Indigenous students,” explains Nora Casson, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Influences on Water Quality, associate professor at the University of Winnipeg and co-lead of the Pathways Program.

“This program invests in Indigenous students and connects them with opportunities at a time where extra support can make a big difference. By having this research experience early in their university studies, connecting them with other Indigenous students with similar interests, we can really help them see their future goals in science,” she adds.

Casson says since its inception in 2019, the suite of programs has seen huge success, helping dozens of Indigenous students. Still, her team knows they could do more.

“We have been running these programs on a patchwork of funding. We’ve been cobbling all the pieces together and juggling several balls to keep them going.”

The University of Winnipeg Pathways Program is one of three projects at Canadian institutions to receive the inaugural Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity. The award, funded through the Canada Research Chairs Program (CRCP), is a tri-agency initiative of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and is administered by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat (TIPS), which is housed within SSHRC.

This inaugural award for excellence in equity recognizes innovative projects that challenge the status quo and address systemic barriers in the research ecosystem. The award is named in honor of eight Canadian academics—Professors Marjorie Griffin Cohen, Louise Forsyth, Glenis Joyce, Audrey Kobayashi, Shree Mulay, Susan Prentice, and the late Professors Michèle Ollivier and the late Wendy Robbins—who spent nearly two decades fighting to increase equity within the CRCP.

“The Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity congratulates the Pathways Program for equipping Indigenous students with trusted mentors in science. This award was created to celebrate the remarkable contributions in addressing equity gaps within Canadian universities. The Pathways Program illustrates the importance of supporting Indigenous students throughout their academic careers in the hopes of creating brighter and more prosperous futures,” says Valérie Laflamme, associate vice-president of the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat.

The important and one-time $100,000 award will allow the University of Winnipeg team to launch a capstone course within the Pathways suite of programs. It’s called Indigenous Leaders in Science (ILS), and it plans to provide leadership and mentorship skills to undergraduate and graduate students, training them to be role models to younger Indigenous students.

“I think our project is game-changing,” asserts Casson. “If we can help Indigenous students navigate a career in science and catch them right at the inflection point when they’re about to take off, that’s when we get to watch them soar.”

Now in her third year in biology at the University of Winnipeg, Grift plans to join ILS and be a mentor for other young Indigenous students. She calls the Pathways Program “life-changing” and credits it for setting her on her journey to becoming a doctor.

“The Pathways Program was my ‘in’ to research,” adds Grift. “I work as a research assistant in a respiratory physiology lab. I’m excited about the possibility of mentoring younger students and helping them find a career in science just like I have.”