RAY Program transforms research experience for students

Cheri Glina is a fourth-year undergraduate student in the School of Health Policy & Management, Faculty of Health, and she’s already positioning herself for a career in women’s health. Glina spent her first few summers while at York as a volunteer in local hospitals and later worked as a doula to provide non-medical assistance to birthing women.

So when Professor Peter Tsasis, in York’s School of Health Policy & Management, recommended that she apply for a paid summer research position through the University’s Research at York (RAY) pilot program, Glina jumped at the chance to apply her hospital experience and healthcare aspirations to an actual research project within a hospital setting.

"Working with Professor Tsasis was one of the best experiences I will ever have in my life," says Glina. "We created a survey to probe the relationship between decreases in epidural rates and the availability of alternative pain management techniques at York Central Hospital in Richmond Hill. Beyond the research, speaking to women about their birth experiences was really rewarding."

Right: The Ray Program creates research opportunities for York students

Glina is just one of more than 80 students who took part in the RAY pilot program last year. RAY creates research jobs for students with demonstrated financial need, allowing them to gain research experience, develop professional skills, and collaborate with professors and graduate students while earning a competitive wage on campus.

"Through surveys like the National Survey of Student Engagement, we know that approximately 65 per cent of York undergrads spend 10 hours or less on campus outside of the classroom," says Rob Tiffin, York vice-president students. "We also know that our students work an average of 17 hours per week, most of which takes place off-campus. By expanding York’s research culture to involve a large segment of its undergraduate student body, RAY makes the connection between research and curricular studies explicit. It also gives students the chance to work closely with their professors and gives those interested in graduate studies exposure to a research environment."

Strict position criteria guarantee that students won’t spend the whole term in the photocopy room. Each RAY position is reviewed by a committee of professors to ensure that its duties are truly integral to the research process, providing the student with strong research experience.

Approved positions are posted on the Career Centre‘s Web site; interested students must submit a resumé and complete an interview before they may be hired. Throughout the process, Career Centre staff are available to provide feedback on resumés, cover letters, portfolios and interview skills.

"Intensifying York’s research activity is the paramount priority laid out in the University’s Academic Plan," says Stan Shapson, vice-president research & innovation. "The RAY Program provides unique opportunities to engage in research while expanding our research culture to undergraduate students.

Left: The research culture at York has been expanded through RAY to include undergraduate students

"RAY definitely gives you an understanding of what research is like," says Andrey Akhvlediani, who began working toward a master’s in pure mathematics this September after spending his summer researching wavelet theory with Professor Peter Gibson in York’s Department of Mathematics & Statistics, Faculty of Science & Engineering. "Professor Gibson and I met informally once a week for discussions that sometimes lasted three or four hours and demanded a lot of preparation. My research exposed me to many related subjects and greatly expanded my classroom learning. It’s a golden opportunity for anyone interested in graduate school."

Karen Weisz agrees. Her research with Professor Chun Peng in the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science & Engineering, explored the effect a hormone group has on fish egg maturation as part of a series of projects exploring the hormones’ effect on ovarian cancer and human placenta cells. "I’d looked for full-time research jobs outside of York, but had no luck," says the fourth-year biology student. "I couldn’t afford to volunteer, but I really wanted to get some experience working in the lab to prepare for my thesis project. The techniques and skills I learned were complicated and required a lot of training, so I feel like I’ve already got a huge head start."

Students aren’t the only ones to benefit. "We surveyed all our participants last winter," says Tiffin. "On the whole, the pilot was extremely positive for both students and faculty. The suggestions we received were largely about how to improve the process this year as we expand RAY into an ongoing annual program."

Glina, who eventually plans to do a master’s degree in public health management and open a birthing centre, can’t recommend the program strongly enough. "I was so intimidated when I started, but there’s no better way to learn than with a professor standing behind you the whole way," she says. "It gives you the confidence and motivation necessary to succeed as a first-time researcher. Never turn a chance like this down!"

How to apply to the RAY Program

In 2007-2008, RAY will create between 150 and 200 research positions for York undergraduates across a broad range of academic disciplines. To apply, first check your student financial profile  to see if you are eligible to participate in RAY. If you have a demonstrated financial need, watch for positions that interest you online at the Career Centre Web site. The site contains useful information on resumé preparation, portfolio and interview skills.

If you don’t qualify to participate, talk to your professors about your research interests. There may be other funding sources available to support your involvement with a research project.

Submitted to YFile by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer.