Undergraduate health research conference sparks global interest

Collage showing DNA, medicine and more

By Elaine Smith

It’s the latest triumph for UHRE, which is an Agents of Change project. These projects are supported by an alumni donor and attempt to promote applied learning opportunities and develop students’ transferable skills. Currently, they address one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); UHRE addresses three SDGs: quality education; reduced inequality; and decent work and economic growth.

“UHRE aims to provide undergraduate students with health research experience,” said Mohamed Elsayed Elghobashy, a fourth-year kinesiology student and UHRE co-lead. “Many students have trouble accessing research opportunities, obtaining research skills or publishing their work. The barriers are greater for underrepresented groups with less social capital.”

The UHRE team held a Research 101 summit in Nov. 2021 submitted and followed it up by submitting a proposal for a research conference last year; it was approved for the 2021-22 academic year.

“When we were conceptualizing UHRE, we wanted growth opportunities for students and this conference is a tangible result students can add to their CVs,” said Dorsa Shakeri, one of UHRE’s co-leads and a recent kinesiology graduate. “It’s usually graduate students who get to attend conferences, but we wanted an undergraduate-specific event where undergrads felt welcomed submitting their work.”

Amireza Goli, a kinesiology student and project co-lead, noted that the team did an environmental scan and learned that there was no health-focused undergraduate research conference in Canada.

Elsayed Elghobashy, Goli and Shakeri, along with UHRE co-lead Parmin Rahimpoor-Marnani organized the conference with assistance from other UHRE members and peer leaders at Calumet and Stong Colleges; staff, such as Julie Hard, international relations manager for the Faculty of Health; faculty, who reviewed abstracts and judged presentations; and administrators, including Angelo Belcastro, chair of the School of Kinesiology and Health Science,  Mazen Hamadeh, associate dean for students in the Faculty of Health and Harvey Skinner, founding dean of the Faculty of Health.

“We can’t say enough about how helpful Julie was,” said Elsayed Elghobashy. “She connected us with so many other institutions.”

Hard said, “The UHRE was an incredible opportunity for undergraduate students globally as well as for students at York. Our institutional partners around the world are eager to connect with our students and showcase outstanding student research projects at the same time. For me, it was wonderful to see these connections being made.”  

The team received 100 abstracts, but only 80 were accepted, based on the quality of the research. Professor Skinner delivered the opening day keynote address and Kimberly Badal, a 2012 York graduate, PhD candidate in molecular genetics and founder of the Caribbean Cancer Initiative, was the keynote speaker on day two. The team of volunteers stepped up to ensure that the event ran smoothly, facilitating the sessions and handling the question-and-answer periods. Each presenter was allotted 10 minutes to discuss the research and five minutes for questions; with 80 presenters, concurrent sessions were a must.

“Our theme was Agents of Change,” said Shakeri, “and all the presentations served that function by introducing innovations or interesting findings. “There was a good interdisciplinary exchange, too.

“Researchers drive the state of health science and decide which problems get solved. It was so good to have a wide range of topics: nursing, psychology, medical biophysics, zoology and nutrition, for example. Our community of reviewers wasn’t homogeneous either.”

The organizers created three awards for presenters: the Harvey Skinner Research Impact Award; an award for research excellence (methodology) and one for the best research proposal. The awards were judged based on the quality of the presentations and professor reviews of the abstracts and the winners were the following:

Harvey Skinner Research Impact Award – “Long-lasting insecticidal nets ownership and Malaria morbidity in the Krachi East Municipality, Ghana” presented by Israel Wuresah, University of Health and Allied Sciences, Ho, Ghana;

Research Excellence Award – “Stopping the Stomachache: Transient Receptor Potential-Mediated Targeting of Activity Blockers Into Gut Nociceptors For Selective Blockade of Abdominal Pain” presented by Nurit Engelmayer, Hebrew University Faculty of Medicine, Jerusalem, Israel; and

Best Research Proposal Award – “Developing Ex-Vivo Culture System of Mouse Uterus” presented by Yvonne Ping, Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Canada.

The organizers were very pleased by the response to and participation in the conference, including its global reach.

“We’re very excited by the success of the conference,” said Elsayed Elghobashy. “It motivates us to make it sustainable by holding it annually. We’ll probably make it a hybrid event, because we want to maintain international engagement.”

Rahimpoor-Marnani said the conference was “a great opportunity to get a new perspective on how diverse undergraduate research can be.” Goli noted, “We built bridges horizontally and vertically by organizing this conference. It was a big soup of ideas that was super-impactful.”