Undergraduate scientist makes her mark in research

N Mehta FEATURED image
N Mehta FEATURED image

Nishila Mehta considers her two part-time research jobs at York University and Women’s College Hospital “a hobby as well as work,” so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this 19-year-old global health student already has two refereed journal articles to her credit.

The most recent article, appearing in the Columbia University Journal of Public Health this summer, grew out of a project completed for her Health Policy, Power and Politics class, a mandatory course for her major taught by Professor Claudia Chaufan. The course turned out to be a revelation for Mehta in a number of ways.

Nishila Mehta
Nishila Mehta

“When I enrolled in the course, I thought I had a semester’s worth of long readings, dry discussions, and formal essays ahead of me,” Mehta said.  “What I didn’t expect was to leave the class empowered by a changed world view, new insights into the power structures behind our society and a strengthened set of communication and critical thinking skills.”

Chaufan employs Jigsaw Pedagogy, a group learning method that requires each student to become an expert on a specific topic and present it in class to their study group in a condensed, understandable fashion.

“You learn to take complex information and explain it in a simple way,” said Mehta, an aspiring physician. “In medicine, that’s a valuable skill.”

The assignments also captured Mehta’s imagination. For example, Chaufan asked the students to create a socio-biography, looking at their lives from a global viewpoint, considering their own health as a product not only of a series of personal choices, but of chance: the social circumstances into which they were born and nurtured.

Claudia Chaufan.
Claudia Chaufan.

For the final project, students were asked to pick a program focused on global health and run by a large organization. Chaufan asked them to analyze it using what they had learned about power dynamics, economics and politics. Mehta chose the BioHub, a research centre funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan “to develop and apply the technologies that will enable doctors to cure, prevent or manage all diseases during our children’s lifetime.”

Mehta’s analysis, which she turned into forthcoming journal article in partnership with a peer, took a critical look at the BioHub and the private funding of science in America. She addressed such questions as to whether any meaningful change to global health results from such efforts and whether these programs are simply being used to further a “Western saviour complex.”

“This program is focused on new drugs and technologies, which alone cannot improve disease the rates of disease,” Mehta said. “You need to look at improving the social determinants of health. Why don’t influential people focus on the basics?”

At Chaufan’s urging, Mehta entered her work in the 2017 York Undergraduate Research Fair, where it won first prize. The success inspired Mehta to look toward submitting it to a journal.

“It all started with this course,” said the future clinician-scientist. “Professor Chaufan encouraged me to enter the research fair and has been really supportive.

“This paper consolidates everything we talked about in class.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus