Researchers share findings that could lead to better cancer care

heart and stethoscope

One of the hallmark characteristics of many cancers is a debilitating body- and muscle-wasting condition called cachexia, which affects the way the body processes food and absorbs nutrients. New research from the Faculty of Health – overseen by Professor Olasunkanmi Adegoke and PhD student Stephen Mora ­– looks to better understand the syndrome by asking the question: why do cachectic patients have impaired ability to use nutrients?

Olasunkanmi (Ola) Adegoke
Olasunkanmi (Ola) Adegoke

Cachexia is caused by cancer itself (notably, the cancers of the lung, liver, pancreas, colon) and/or by treatment like chemotherapy. It results in significant weight loss, especially loss of muscle.

The condition’s associated body wasting is linked to poor food intake and loss of appetite, but even if patients do eat – introducing more nutrients and calories – the cachexia doesn’t go away. The condition not only can lead to poor quality of life for those affected but can impede effective treatment.

Adegoke and Mora’s research, published in the American Journal of Physiology-Cell Physiology, aimed to better understand the hows and whys of cachexia in the hopes of leading to improved treatment for cancer patients.

Stephen Mora
Stephen Mora

Their research project studied what happened to skeletal muscle cells, known as myotubes, treated with a clinically relevant chemotherapy drug cocktail. They noted profound atrophy of these cells. A link to poor levels of amino acid – the building blocks for body proteins and therefore the strengthening of muscles – in these cells led the researchers to add amino acids. There was no improvement.

In process, however, they did identify a protein whose abundance was drastically reduced in the muscle cells treated with the drugs. The function of this protein is to transport amino acids into the cell, where they can then be used to make body proteins. Adegoke and Mora then manipulated the muscle cells so they would have high amounts of this transporter. This led to a profound – and promising – rescuing of the cells treated with the chemotherapy drugs.

Adegoke and Mora hope their findings provide data that may lead to the development of interventions that can limit or prevent cancer-associated wasting syndrome.   

The research – which was funded by the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada – builds upon Adegoke’s ongoing work, and expertise, in molecular mechanisms regulating skeletal muscle growth and metabolism.

Faculty of Health helps students take their learning global

airplane landing at dusk banner

The world, as the saying goes, is a classroom, and a special award from the Faculty of Health is making it easier for students to access it. The Global Health Travel Award provides students with funding to help cover travel and accommodation expenses, empowering them to pursue global learning opportunities that can make an impact on their academic and career paths.

The Global Health Travel Award is among several opportunities the Faculty of Health extends to support its students looking to pursue global learning, and it ties to the University’s larger active efforts to reduce financial barriers to international experiences for students, encouraging the development of global citizenship, interpersonal skills, adaptability and more.

The award is given to Faculty of Health undergraduate students who want to complete a global health project as part of a single-term (11-week) international placement that meets the requirement of their academic program.

During the Winter 2024 term, nine students will be able to travel to countries such as Jordan, Ghana, Kenya, Denmark, Germany and Belize thanks to the award. They will gain experiences echoing those of the following current and past students from the Global Health Promotion & Disease Prevention program within York’s School of Global Health whose journeys illustrate the impact the international opportunity and award can have.

Autumn Langford, current student

Langford, who will be graduating following the completion of her practicum, recently won the travel award to journey to Kenya to focus on HIV prevention, particularly among adolescent girls. There, she’ll observe and seek to understand how Kenyan communities address health issues, acknowledging the unique differences from handling HIV in Toronto.

Langford credits the bursary for being pivotal to the opportunity because she is juggling part-time work to cover her other expenses. Without it, her Kenya plans might have faced a financial roadblock. It covered essential needs and unforeseen expenses, such as mandatory immunization for global travel, ensuring her health and safety during the stay.

Daniel Ramlogan, alumnus

Ramlogan saw his academic journey at York culminate with a global health practicum in the Middle East. With the $5,000 of support from the award, he was able to travel to Amman, Jordan, to pursue a placement with the Jordan Health Aid Society International.

The relief from financial concerns, which he describes as a significant weight lifted off his shoulders, allowed Ramlogan to fully engage in the cultural and learning experience. In the process, his passion for research and program development were sparked, resulting in two successful projects: workshops on gender-based violence and sexual health in Amman, and a grant for the Za’atari refugee camp’s medical facilities. Recognized by the Jordanian government and donors, Ramlogan’s contributions continue to positively impact lives, even after his departure.

Mahilet Girma, alumna

The funding Girma received from his award allowed her to travel to Brazil to pursue an opportunity to work with MSF (Doctors Without Borders). There, she played a key role in crafting a training module for community health workers, and she emerged from the experience more confident and with more polished social and professional skills. Her journey wasn’t just an academic and professional, though – it ignited personal growth.

To learn more about awards issued, visit the Global Learning website.

Professors receive CIHR grants to advance dementia research

caregiver supporting elderly person banner

Two York University professors from the Faculty of Health – Lora Appel and Matthias Hoben – have received Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grants to further their contributions to the study of individuals with dementia and their caregivers.

There’s still much about dementia – and dementia care – that remains unexplored, but Appel and Hoben are looking to change that thanks to projects that have received CIHR funding.

Lora Appel
Lora Appel

Appel’s $308,952 grant will be put toward the first study to explore how virtual reality (VR) experiences can be used to benefit both people living with dementia (PWD) and their caregivers.

With an increased interest in the therapeutic use of VR with older adults, some studies have suggested there is potential for the technology to manage behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia and promote quality of life.

For PWDs, VR can potentially reduce apathy, depression and agitation; for caregivers, as those they care for are occupied, it can be used to provide more breaks from the high levels of burden they often navigate.

Appel’s project, titled “VR&R: Providing Respite to Caregivers by Managing Behavioural and Psychological Symptoms in People with Dementia Using Immersive VR-Therapy,” is one of 13 that received a collective $8.7 million from the CIHR Operating Grant: Mechanisms in Brain Aging and Dementia – Factors and Mechanisms that Impact Cognitive Health in Aging.

The project will now pursue a six-week trial, where PWDs will be given the chance to experience immersive VR stimulations as frequently as they choose. Caregivers will then be able to engage in a desired activity at this time, remaining close by to assist only if needed. In the process, Appel’s project seeks to understand how caregivers benefit from the breaks VR gives them, especially as caregivers often describe respite as an internal experience where they can recuperate without removing themselves from a situation.

Matthias Hoben
Matthias Hoben

Hoben, the other grant recipient, received $100,000 in funding for a study of existing literature on adult day programs – part-day supervised activities for dependent adults. Adult day programs aim to maintain or improve older adults’ health, well-being, social, physical and cognitive functioning, and independence, while also providing caregivers a break or opportunity to continue working a paid job.

Because, to date, studies on the outcomes of day programs are inconclusive, Hoben’s project will look at developing program theories that explain how and why these settings lead to positive, negative, or no effects on individuals with dementia and their caregivers.

Titled “Adult Day Programs and Their effects on individuals with Dementia and their Caregivers (ADAPT-DemCare): Developing program theories on the how and why,” the project – one among 16 that received a collective $1.5 million – has been funded by the CIHR Operating Grant called Brain Health and Cognitive Impairment in Aging (BHCIA): Knowledge Synthesis and Mobilization Grants.

Its goal is to provide greater insights and theories into adult day programs with the hope that any resulting theories will be tested and further refined in future studies, and become essential in guiding future research and improvement of day programs.

Both Appel and Hoben are members of the York University Centre for Aging Research & Education (YU-CARE), which looks to support and promote the work of researchers and graduate trainees who study changes, challenges and policies to support aging at individual, organizational and societal levels.

Faculty of Health continues to advance teaching innovation

Header banner for INNOVATUS

Welcome to the January 2024 edition of Innovatus, a special issue of YFile devoted to teaching and learning at York University. This month we showcase the Faculty of Health and highlight its unique and exemplary approaches to pedagogy.

Innovatus is produced by the Office of the Vice-Provost, Teaching and Learning in partnership with Communications and Public Affairs division.

In this issue, the Faculty of Health invites York community members to read stories about how it is leading experiential teaching and learning initiatives that advance strategic initiatives and 21st-century learning in health-related programs.

The work in the Faculty of Health on our newly adopted strategic plan has emphasized a renewed commitment to unique health programming through experiential, accessible education. One of our strategic directions, “Creating Opportunity for Student Engagement and Impact,” will focus on advancing our supports for all students to succeed in their education, with meaningful community engagement through experiential and work-integrated learning (WIL).  

David Peters
Dean David Peters

The recent United Nations’ International Day of Education on Jan. 24 reminds us that inclusive and equitable quality education and fostering lifelong learning are critical to our communities. The Department of Psychology is developing teaching-learning strategies that showcase how equity and success can be planned for first-generation students using research-based modules. This three-year project is led by our inaugural Distinguished Fellow in Learning and Teaching Excellence, a role created to recognize scholarship, innovative pedagogy and expertise in education. In addition, a funded project focusing on WIL for under-represented students aimed to reduce barriers through an initiative that provided Black students with work experiences in applying key skills. 

In the Faculty’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, undergraduate students have community service-learning opportunities for teaching adapted physical activity to high-school students. In the Black Creek and Jane-Finch communities, our undergraduates directly support students who are living with disabilities to compete in their annual Aspire Games, a spring track event held at York University. Our own students help others while applying discipline-specific, evidence-informed knowledge. 

The School of Nursing is taking another approach for strengthening the student experience and is leveraging technology for e-mentoring undergraduate nursing students. Mentoring supports are aimed at helping them face the challenges of transitioning to intense workplace settings and navigate real-world health-care settings. Graduate nursing students participate in providing psychosocial support, career advice and networking. 

Increasing students’ connections to international communities is occurring through course offerings across the Faculty’s five units, such as in the School of Global Health and in the School of Health Policy & Management. Facilitated by our international relations manager, faculty members can develop their capacity for teaching internationally through unique “bootcamp” experiences. Undergraduate and graduate students from across the Faculty of Health gain valuable experience in their area of interest in countries such as Costa Rica, Germany, Ghana and soon Cuba. 

The challenges that our students and graduates face in health care and health-related work settings inspire us to lead through innovative approaches in teaching and learning. We hope you enjoy finding out more about the Faculty of Health and our vision to be leaders and partners for a healthy and just world. 


David Peters 
Dean, Faculty of Health 

Faculty, course directors and staff are invited to share their experiences in teaching, learning, internationalization and the student experience through the Innovatus story form, which is available here.

In this issue:

Two Faculty of Health professors champion equity in education 
Psychology professors Julie Conder and Monique Herbert are advancing initiatives that ensure first-generation and under-represented students are gaining the learning and skills they need to succeed.

Hands-on experience brings kinesiology theory to life
Find out how Assistant Professor Stephanie Bowerman helped students learn how to work with disabled clients by turning theory into practice.

E-mentoring a success for nursing students
A three-month pilot project connected nursing students and practitioners to receive e-mentoring that would better prepare them to enter the workforce.

New Faculty of Health website highlights global learning
“Make our world a smaller place by being in it,” proclaims the new global learning page on the Faculty of Health’s website, which looks to further the Faculty’s series commitment to advancing global engagement, one of the University Academic Plan’s six priorities for action.

Two Faculty of Health professors champion equity in education 

Students working together in a workspace rom

By Elaine Smith

Psychology professors Julie Conder and Monique Herbert have their sights set on improving access, success, and equity in university experiences for marginalized and under-represented students.  

Julie Conder and Monique Herbert
Julie Conder and Monique Herbert
(Photo credit for Hebert image: Sofia Kirk)

Conder, named the Faculty of Health’s inaugural Distinguished Fellow in Learning and Teaching Excellence in March 2023, is engaged in research that will result in a set of interactive learning modules for first-generation university students, while Herbert, an associate professor (teaching stream), served as adviser for a pilot CEWIL Canada (Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada) initiative to provide Black psychology students with summer opportunities to obtain career skills that will ensure they are competitive when applying for jobs or graduate programs. The pilot was spearheaded by the experiential education office for the Faculty. 

“Both of our programs are about supporting marginalized and underrepresented students in gaining skills for the next phase of their lives,” Herbert said. “We are working from the bottom up, from the grassroots level. After hearing from students, we can determine what actionable pieces we can put in place to support them. We are trying to plant seeds and build a sustainable foundation that will endure even after we’re not involved.” 

Conder is committed to improving outcomes for first-generation students, those whose parents and caregivers didn’t attend university. York has the highest population of such learners in Ontario, at about 30 per cent of its student body.  

“I care deeply about investing in the first-generation student experience. I was a first-gen student myself and few resources existed for us at that time,” said Conder. “I have created a three-year plan to support students, starting with a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis to determine what the first-gen experience is like at York. In general, research shows that first-gen students are more likely to be racialized, financially insecure and have more family responsibilities. They are also more likely to be unaware of academic norms and culture and less likely to ask for help than students whose caregivers attended university. 

“Once we determine their needs, we can create modules that address the soft skill sets that will benefit them.” 

Herbert’s CEWIL-funded pilot project, Work Integrated Learning for Black Students in Psychology, offered in 2022, was driven by the vision to address the gap in representation of Black professionals in psychology and related fields. It provided summer field placements for Black undergraduate psychology students in their field of interest. Twelve students participated in the program, working in positions at a variety of health services organizations. In summer 2023, the opportunity was extended to include kinesiology and global health students. 

“Many of these students are working multiple jobs and juggling them with their university requirements, trying to get skills they don’t even know they need,” said Herbert. “This pilot project offered opportunities for acquiring these skills and for helping them to understand where their degree can lead, that there are many different options.” 

The pilot participants also received one-on-one mentorship from both York faculty members and staff, a real bonus for the students.  

Jama Maxie, a final-year specialized honours psychology student, took part in the 2022 program and was appreciative of the placement opportunity. 

Jama Maxie
Jama Maxie

“Going into psychology, I know I would face barriers that separated me from my peers,” he said, citing the challenges of getting into research labs during the COVID pandemic, and having an African name he worried wouldn’t necessarily put his curriculum vitae (CV) first in consideration. “The work-integrated experiences for Black students in psychology gave me the upper hand I so desperately needed at the time,” he said, as he ended up working over the summer in a research lab at St. Michael’s Hospital that aimed at reducing inequalities in HIV outcomes for Black Canadians. “After finishing the experience, I started to confidently apply to research labs because I now had a CV that included research-relevant skills,” he said. “The foot in the door I got from the work-integrated experience was just what I needed and gave me an equal opportunity to be just as successful as any other student in psychology.” 

Conder, who mentored one of the CEWIL students, said, “I could see the student transformation from thinking they couldn’t do this to ‘I am doing this and if I have questions, there’s support for me.’” 

A debrief and celebration session where students had the opportunity to discuss the teachings and learnings from their CEWIL experiences was held once the placements were completed. The event offered an opportunity for networking and allowed for suggestions about how students could incorporate their experiences into their CVs and cover letters. 

Conder’s three-year project is in the research phase at present, with plans to employ innovative assessment strategies and create an e-learning Interactive Skills Hub and related resources in the Faculty of Health to increase equity for first-generation students. Her undergraduate thesis student Celina Lieu has taken on the role of research assistant to help Conder explore whether media examples of student success motivate first-generation students. Conder is evaluating existing resources for these students before creating skills modules to give them a helping hand as they begin considering placement and career opportunities. 

“Having such a program for first-generation students will allow them to take this information with them wherever they go,” Conder said. 

Lieu, a specialized honours psychology student, emphasized the importance of the work being done by Conder, a testimonial that might apply equally to Herbert’s CEWIL work. 

“As a first-generation student myself, this work is important to me because many studies demonstrate the barriers that first-generation students face, and this work has the potential for implications that can combat that,” wrote Lieu in an email. “I connected to Dr. Conder’s work on first-generation students because I relate to it a lot and felt I could provide a student perspective in this research process. I also strongly believe in this line of research and in its ability to create support for first-generation university students.” 

Hands-on experience brings kinesiology theory to life

holding helping hand banner

By Elaine Smith

During the fall semester, students in the Faculty of Health’s Adapted Physical Activity course, run by Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Stephanie Bowerman, had the opportunity to put the theories they had learned about working with disabled clients into practice by working with students with varying disabilities from a high school in the nearby Jane-Finch community.

Stephanie Bowerman
(image credit: Kathryn Bain Photography)

“Most of my students have not knowingly worked with a person with a disability in a physical activity setting, so this was a great opportunity to gain hands-on experience,” said Bowerman. “These sessions provided opportunities to practise many of the Becoming YU competencies in a new context, such as communication, interpersonal connection and problem solving. Whatever field they choose after graduation, these skills are important.” 

Working with Paola Calderon-Valdivia, the Faculty of Health’s experiential education co-ordinator, and the York-TD Community Engagement Centre, Bowerman connected with Terry Douglas, special education department head at James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School, a short subway ride away from York University’s Keele Campus.

It was arranged for 20 students with varying disabilities to come to campus for three weekly physical activity tutorials to help the high schoolers prepare to participate in the Aspire Games, a competition in April that offers students with disabilities an opportunity to compete and shine in sports events. 

Bowerman’s students were divided into two one-hour sessions within which two-to-three York students were paired with one high-school student. In advance, the kinesiology students needed to plan and develop modified activities within the lesson plan provided to accommodate their student’s individualized needs. Andrea Haefele, a health and physical education curriculum consultant from the non-profit educational support organization Ophea, worked with the York students in preparation, leading a workshop called Disability Centred Movement: Supporting Inclusive Physical Education. Haefele collaborated with Bowerman in creating inclusive lesson plans and supported the York students while working directly with high-school students with disabilities in the physical activity tutorial setting.  

“She discussed making accommodations, how to support students with disabilities during activity, how to instruct students with visual aids and what kinds of behaviour management strategies to use,” Bowerman said. “The students took the lesson plan provided and made accommodations to the activities to meet the particular needs of their student. The York students all took turns taking the lead in the sessions.”

A small group of kinesiology and high school students are each holding and tossing a colourful scarf in the air.  Each person moves to the right while the scarves are in the air and attempts to receive the new scarf before it falls to the ground, challenging their hand-eye co-ordination and movement skills.
A small group of kinesiology and high-school students are each holding and tossing a colourful scarf in the air. Each person moves to the right while the scarves are in the air and attempts to receive the new scarf before it falls to the ground, challenging their hand-eye co-ordination and movement skills.

They were able to practise using multiple forms of communication, because using strictly verbal instructions may not be the best approach for all individuals.  

Each week, the session began with a warm-up, followed by the groups rotating through four activity stations. During week one, the activities focused on sending and receiving objects: the transfer of skills to javelin or shot put. The second week’s activities focused on movement, emphasizing running skills and running over obstacles. The final week of activities highlighted track and field skills, such as throwing objects to targets (javelin, shot put), jumping, running relays and passing the baton, as well as overall fitness. All of the activities were designed to provide fundamental skills while exploring the joy of movement 

These sessions were valuable to the high schoolers, Douglas added, noting, “Any opportunities for skill acquisition into the community allows students to successfully transition into the community with a greater sense of personal capital and agency.” 

Following the experiential education (EE) sessions, the York students were asked to reflect on their experiences, and most found it eye-opening, Bowerman said. Some are now considering working with people with disabilities as a career possibility. 

Jessica Tan
Jessica Tan

Jessica Tan, a fifth-year bachelor of science student in kinesiology and health sciences, was among them. 

“I’d never worked with high-school students with disabilities, so it was nice to get exposure to a different demographic,” Tan said. “I learned that assessments don’t tell you everything about a person; you need to work with them to understand them.” 

Tan also found it was necessary to adapt her teaching approach in the moment to meet the needs of students.  

“I really had to make adjustments, think quickly and change the plan on the fly,” she said. “That’s something you don’t learn studying theory. You learn so much more through interactions than you do from slides.” 

Tan, an aspiring kinesiologist or occupational therapist, is also a part-time dance teacher, and her EE work and reflecting on it have caused her to alter her own teaching approach. 

“After this course, I understood that everyone has a different path to achievement and I began to appreciate the individuality of every student,” she said. 

Calderon-Valdivia, the Faculty’s EE co-ordinator, attended the sessions and was happy to see the learning taking place. 

“Engaging in community service learning fosters a sense of social responsibility and empathy, qualities that are highly valued by employers,” she said. “Through the practical application of specialized skills learned in this course, students gained social awareness and honed their adaptability skills. Ultimately, this type of EE helps shape individuals into well-rounded, ethical professionals.” 

The initial experiential education project was supported by a Faculty of Health Fund for Innovation in Teaching grant that allowed Bowerman to hire the consultant and to buy specialized equipment, such as foam javelins, for the students to use. Going forward, however, the equipment is available, and Bowerman plans to recruit kinesiology students for any assistance she needs to run the EE sessions. She is also excited about the relationship she has now established with teachers and staff at James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School. In fact, she created a fourth session to wrap up the program, providing the high-school students with participation certificates and snack bags for an enjoyable ending. 

Douglas, the special education department head, expanded on the importance of this community-service learning opportunity and said, “York University becomes an extended learning community for our students that affirms their strengths, worth and dignity.” 

Bowerman added, “I’m excited to see how this partnership will continue. The high-school teachers were excited about the collaboration and were pleased that York students could meet their own students where they were at. We can build on this relationship and see if there are opportunities for students to do independent study work.” 

E-mentoring a success for nursing students

hand holding heart near stethoscope BANNER

By Elaine Smith

A three-month pilot project to pair York University nursing graduate students with fourth-year nursing students for online mentoring has been a success, says Ruth Robbio, the assistant professor who led the project. 

Using an Academic Innovation Fund grant, in 2023, Robbio created a pilot mentoring initiative for fourth-year nursing students based on her own observations, research and knowledge of the profession – notably her doctoral work focused on e-mentoring for new nurses. She realized that the post-pandemic educational environment offered an excellent opportunity to use e-mentoring in a proactive way by providing support from experienced nurses for those entering the field. 

Ruth Robbio
Ruth Robbio

“New graduate nurses face difficulties in their transition to professional practice and many report being bullied in the workplace,” said Robbio. “This challenging transition to professional practice was compounded for nursing students during the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in limited academic supports and clinical placements, alongside nursing staff burnout – leading to some nurses leaving the profession. 

“Socialization through psychosocial support and mentoring are critical to facilitating entry to practice. However, traditional in-person mentoring may encounter barriers such as unsupportive work environments, lack of mentor access, heavy workloads, and location and distance constraints.” 

The pilot launched with the assistance of a team of colleagues that included co-principal investigator Mavoy Bertram; Teaching Commons educational developer Lisa Endersby, statistician Hugh McCague from the Institute for Social Research; Helen Brennagh from Learning Technology Services; Stephanie Quail, acting director of the Open Scholarship Department at York University Libraries; and research assistant Doina Nugent

Ruth Robbio and her team
Ruth Robbio (top row, centre) and her team.

After receiving ethics approval for the pilot project in January 2023, Robbio recruited both mentors and mentees through the nursing program at York. Ten practising nurses doing graduate work at York volunteered to serve as e-mentors and 10 fourth-year students in the collaborative nursing program expressed an interest in e-mentorship. The e-mentors posted their profiles online and the e-mentees indicated their top three choices, allowing Robbio to match them. 

Before the program started, the mentees completed a questionnaire to identify their sources of stress, and they noted academic, work and financial stresses as the most pressing. Both groups also completed a self-reflective questionnaire about their current mental well-being. Mentors were generally more satisfied than their mentee counterparts. 

Robbio and her team fashioned the three-month pilot around six online modules that participants could review and discuss, addressing topics such as goal setting, conflict management and career advice. The real focus of the program was check-ins every two weeks between e-mentors and e-mentees. The e-mentors were able to provide psychosocial support and opportunities for professional networking and career support.  

“Nursing is often viewed as a sink or swim culture when you begin working, so this program showed e-mentees how to prepare for their careers and encouraged them not to bottle up their frustrations and anxieties,” Robbio said.  

The project has been an unqualified success, with 75 per cent of the mentees saying afterward that they would stay in touch with their mentors. Meanwhile, 80 per cent of mentors found the program helpful to them as e-mentors and 100 per cent would either participate in the program again or recommend it to a friend. 

The e-mentees were grateful for the support along the way. “I have found that in the few conversations that I have had with my mentor, she has been able to encourage me with ideas and advice about my career path,” wrote one e-mentee. “We’ve been able to connect on our passion for public health and I’ve been able to focus on the journey that I would like to take in my career as a health-care professional.”  

E-mentors found satisfaction in assisting future colleagues, too.  “It was fulfilling to share my knowledge and provide career and resumé advice to the next generation of nurses,” one wrote. “Witnessing my mentee benefit from my experience made me proud to be part of such an impactful program.”   

“At such a volatile time in health care, it is rewarding knowing that you are providing support and guidance to the next generation of nurses,” wrote another mentor. “It is an experience that benefits the experienced nurse, not just the student.” 

Some consistent themes emerged from the project, based on the post-program satisfaction survey. Participants viewed e-mentoring as a reciprocal relationship and as a commitment that takes time and engagement. The program offered a support system and provided support beyond career mentoring, occasionally venturing into the personal realm. E-mentees highlighted such benefits as “having a person with more experience guide you through new challenges” and seeing “a more practical experience of what nursing is like outside of school.” 

E-mentors mentioned their new role as “a reminder of the benefit and importance of supporting new nurses entering the profession” and indicated the value of “being able to learn about how I would like to mentor versus how others would like to be mentored.” 

Their study findings were presented last year at the Teaching in Focus Conference at York University, at the 8th World Congress on Nursing & Health Care in London, U.K., and at the University of New Mexico Mentoring Institute Conference in Albuquerque, N.M., where their conference paper was published in The Chronicle of Mentoring & Coaching, the institute’s premier bimonthly online academic journal publication. 

Given the success of the pilot, Robbio is optimistic about its place in the nursing curriculum. She and her research colleagues are eager to share study findings with the School of Nursing leadership team to see if this program might be a good fit for existing leadership courses or as a stand-alone. 

“The program is very transferable to any area of study, but it is especially valuable in nursing because it’s not easy out there for new graduate nurses,” Robbio said. 

Thanks to this pilot project, mentees now know what to expect as they enter the workforce in 2024. 

Faculty of Health website highlights global learning

laptop with globe on screen

“Make our world a smaller place by being in it,” proclaims the new global learning page on the Faculty of Health’s website, which looks to further the Faculty’s series commitment to advancing global engagement, one of the University Academic Plan’s six priorities for action. 

Julie Hard
Julie Hard

Julie Hard, manager of international relations for the Faculty, views the page as “a hub for a diverse range of experiences such as student exchanges, faculty-led programs, internships, conferences and collaborative initiatives.” 

“When the site launched, we wanted to drive people to a one-stop shop: one place where students, faculty and the community could see themselves and how to work together to increase global engagement related to health,” adds Hard. “The global learning site provides a menu of opportunities for faculty and students, who can build global experience into their courses and their own learning journeys.” 

Now, there’s no need to hunt through multiple pages on the York website; not only does the Faculty of Health showcase relevant global learning opportunities in one place, it provides information about scholarships and testimonials from students who have dipped their toes in international waters and found the opportunities to be very stimulating. 

Among the interesting global learning opportunities the website highlights are: 

Faculty Bootcamp 

To encourage faculty members to offer global learning opportunities for health students, Hard runs a Faculty Bootcamp that offers a chance for faculty members to experience education in a global setting so they can readily understand the context and the available resources and can develop their own study abroad courses. Faculty members apply to attend a week-long experience and become students themselves, all while considering how they would lead a course in the designated setting. Hard usually leads an annual bootcamp at the Las Nubes EcoCampus in Costa Rica, home to numerous York study abroad courses, and is considering holding a similar session in Ghana, both places where the Faculty wants to enhance its strategic partnerships. 

“Faculty members have to have an idea about what they might teach and, if selected, go global with a mindset geared toward building a learning experience based on available resources,” Hard said. “Faculty members are introduced to community partners, educational programs, local businesses, and significant historical and cultural experiences that are relevant to proposed courses. They connect with other academic institutions with similar or complementary programs so they can build on York partnerships or create new ones.” 

FLIP for a global experience 

Faculty of Health students have always had myriad opportunities to gain global experience through general-interest study abroad programs run by York International or by University partners. Now, there are new health courses being offered abroad, called Faculty-Led International Programs (FLIPs). These courses, running from two to six weeks, are developed and led by professors in the Faculty. Registration for the two FLIPs scheduled for the Winter 2024 term quickly filled up. 

One of the new FLIPs will take place during Reading Week in February at the Las Nubes EcoCampus. Adrienne Perry, a professor in the Department of Psychology, created a course that uses an environmental psychology lens to examine people’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, motivation, resistance and behaviour in relation to environmental factors.  

Jessica Vorstermans, an assistant professor of critical disability studies in the School of Health Policy & Management, is leading a two-week FLIP in Cuba in late April. Her course, Experience Cuba: Enacting the human right to health and health equity, demonstrates that these concepts are the predictable outcome of the ideological foundation of Cuban public policy, embedded in the socialist character of the Cuban state. Vorstermans will be working with faculty from the Universidad de Holguín, one of York University’s new partner institutions. 

Student enthusiasm for global learning 

Dylan Alega, a fourth-year student in the specialized honours psychology program, is one of those students who can speak about the benefits of studying abroad first-hand. Alega took the 12-day Community Psychology course offered at York University’s Las Nubes EcoCampus in Costa Rica in summer 2023.  

Alega, a Filipino who recently immigrated to Canada after living in Singapore, found that the course struck a real chord. As an immigrant, he found that many of his other psychology courses didn’t represent his own experiences and he found it hard to relate. His Costa Rican experience “was more representative of my own experience and it was cool that an alternative exists,” he said.  

“The highlight for me was visiting Indigenous communities in the struggle for their land. It got you out of your comfort zone regarding your world view in general.” 

He also enjoyed the opportunity to visit a Montessori school operated by El Salvadorean war refugees and Longo Mai, Costa Rica, a co-op with the goal of moving away from capitalism to become self-sustaining. 

“Costa Rica and the Community Psychology course have reoriented my path,” Alega said. “I want to work with marginalized communities who don’t have access to the usual mental health services, such as immigrant communities.” 

In fact, he and his fellow students were so taken with their Las Nubes experience that they applied to the Bold Ideas program for a grant to host a panel discussion called “Crossing Boundaries in Costa Rica.” Held in November, this session focused on the study abroad experience, its benefits, challenges, highlights and lessons learned. 

“We did a lot in 12 days, and this gave us the opportunity to reminisce and reflect,” Alega said. “It [the course in Costa Rica] was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” 

For Hard, who attended the student-led session, it was gratifying to see the impact of the Faculty’s Global Learning program on students. 

“We want to provide opportunities to learn about various aspects of health in different contexts,” she said.  

To meet students’ needs in programming, Hard will use the global learning website to host an annual Grow Global Survey that will allow the Faculty to assess student needs, interests and barriers as they plan for a future of advancing global engagement. 

De-escalating robocops? York study imagines future of crisis response 

Robotic hand reaches for human hand

By Corey Allen, senior manager, research communications

Picture this: a 911 operator in your city receives a call from a person in mental distress and needs to send help.  

They could dispatch the police or an integrated unit of both police and mental health professionals. But instead, the operator sends a robot.  

This scenario may sound like science fiction, but it’s the kind of futuristic thinking that has researchers at York University considering all angles when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) and crisis response.   

Building more empathetic bots through interdisciplinary research  
Kathryn Pierce
Kathryn Pierce

In a paper published in Applied Sciences earlier this year, psychology PhD candidate Kathryn Pierce and her co-authors explore the potential role robots could play in crisis de-escalation, as well as the capabilities engineers would need to program them to be effective.    

The visionary paper is part of a larger project at the Lassonde School of Engineering that involves early-stage research to design and test robots to assist in security and police force tasks. The York engineers asked the psychology researchers to provide their social scientific lens to their forward-thinking work on humanizing machines.  

“De-escalation is not a well-researched topic and very little literature exists about what de-escalation really looks like moment by moment,” says Pierce, who is supervised by Dr. Debra Pepler, a renowned psychologist and Distinguished Research Professor in the Faculty of Health. “This makes it difficult to determine what kinds of behavioural changes are necessary in both responders and the person in crisis to lead to a more positive outcome.”   

No hard and fast rules for de-escalation, for both humans and robots  

With limited academic understanding of what really happens in human-to-human interactions during a crisis response, let alone robot-to-human, training a robot to calm a person down poses an incredibly tall task.  

Despite the challenge, Pierce and her co-authors were able to develop a preliminary model outlining the functions a robot should theoretically be able to perform for effective de-escalation. These functions are made up of verbal and non-verbal communication strategies that engineers would need to be mindful of when building a robot for such a task.    

Some of these strategies include a robot’s gaze – the way a machine and human look at one another – the speed in which they approach (slow and predictable), and the sound and tone of their voice (empathetic and warm).  

But, as the researchers point out, ultimately, robots cannot be “programmed in a fixed, algorithmic, rule-based manner” because there are no fixed rules for how people calm each other.   

“Even if there were algorithms governing human-to-human de-escalation, whether those would translate into an effective robot-to-human de-escalation is an empirical question,” they write.  

It is also difficult to determine whether people will react to robots emulating human behaviour the same way they would if it was an actual person. 

Advances in AI could add new layer of complication to the future of crisis response  

In recent years, the use and discussion of non-police crisis response services have garnered growing attention in various cities across North America, and elsewhere in the world.  

Advocates for replacing traditional law enforcement with social workers, nurses or mental health workers – or at least the integration of these professionals with police units – argue that this leads to better outcomes.  

Research published earlier this year showed that police responding to people in mental distress use less force if accompanied by a health-care provider. Another study found that community responses were more effective for crime prevention and cost savings.  

Introducing robots into the mix would add to the complexity of crisis response services design and reforms. And it could lead to a whole host of issues for engineers, social scientists and governments to grapple with in the future. 

The here and now 

For the time being, Pierce and her co-authors see a machine’s greatest potential in video recording. Robots would accompany human responders on calls to film the interaction. The footage could then be reviewed for responders to reflect on what went well and what to improve upon.  

Researchers could also use this data to train robots to de-escalate situations more like their human counterparts.    

Another use for AI surveillance the researchers theorize could be to have robots trained to identify individuals in public who are exhibiting warning signs of agitation, allowing for police or mental health professionals to intervene before a crisis point is ever reached.  

While a world in which a 911 operator dispatches an autonomous robot to a crisis call may be too hard to conceive, Pierce and her co-authors do see a more immediate, realistic line of inquiry for this emerging area of research.  

“I think what’s most practical would be to have engineers direct their focus on how robots can ultimately assist in de-escalation, rather than aiming for them to act independently,” says Pierce. “It’s a testament to the power and sophistication of the human mind that our emotions are hard to replicate. What our paper ultimately shows, or reaffirms, is that modern machines are still no match for human intricacies.”  


The paper, “Considerations for Developing Robot-Assisted Crisis De-Escalation Practice,” was co-authored by Pierce and Pepler, along with Michael Jenkin, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the Lassonde School of Engineering, and Stephanie Craig, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Guelph.  

The work was funded by the Canadian Innovation for Defence Excellence & Security Innovation Networks. 

Graduate students see health equity in practice 

Black Creek Farm FEATURED image

By Elaine Smith 

While working toward a master’s degree in health equity, Erin Flanagan’s experiential education (EE) opportunity in the Human Rights & Health Equity graduate course offered by Jessica Vorstermans was a factor in her decision to pursue her passion for health policy and equity in the PhD program at York University. 

In addition to teaching relevant theory, Vorstermans, an assistant professor of critical disability studies, requires students in her course to engage with small organizations that are doing grassroots work. She also brings in speakers from such organizations to share their work experiences with the class.

Graduate students, professor and members of SweetGrass Roots Collective gathering sweet water at Black Creek Community Farm. L-R: Olivia, Jessica, Star, Kashfa, Sana and Jennifer
Graduate students, professor and members of SweetGrass Roots Collective gathering sweet water at Black Creek Community Farm. Pictured, left to right: Olivia, Jessica, Star, Kashfa, Sana and Jennifer.

“I want the students to engage with the people doing that work on the ground and understand what that looks like,” said Vorstermans. “We talk about community engagement in research and intersectionality, and I think it’s important for students to experience that and have time to think, reflect and debrief as part of their academic training, since they’ll likely be working in policy and different systems of care.  

“The idea is for them to be close to the people who are experiencing the policies, theories and concepts my students are learning about: those who experience inequity.” 

The organizations that provide Vorstermans’ students an opportunity for EE include: the Sweetgrass Roots Collective, an Indigenous collective that works to re-indigenize urban spaces, doing land- and place-based education, earthwork, arts and storytelling, to plant and steward land at Black Creek Community Farm, which is next door to York’s Keele Campus; Community Peacemaker Teams, an advocacy organization that describes itself as building partnerships to transform violence and aggression; and the Ocama Collective, “a community-directed group of birth workers of colour, living and working in Tkaronto [Toronto], who are dedicated to the reclamation of traditional and holistic childbearing and birthing practices amongst IBPIC folx” (sic).  

“Learning from people experientially is powerful,” said Vorstermans, and both Flanagan and recent student Humairaa Karodia agree.

Humairaa Karodia
Humairaa Karodia

“The group project was the highlight of the course, because it allowed me to immerse myself into the real world,” said Flanagan. “We were doing research with a purpose, so we could see it come to fruition, see the end result and see that it made an impact.” 

Flanagan and the four other students on her team worked with the Indigenous Wet’suwet’en people of British Columbia who have been protesting plans made by large corporations to build pipelines on their lands – projects that don’t have the tribe’s consent. 

“We worked as an ally to support the Indigenous community with their protest, document it and ensure it got proper coverage in the media,” said Flanagan. “We provided the story from the perspective of the Indigenous community and we helped gather information so we could support the protest, researching the amount of money the RCMP was spending on the protest, including blockades and arrests of Indigenous people. We tried to find numbers so we could provide a clear look at how much public money goes into this. 

“There were a lot of nuances, and we filed a freedom of information request, going through that whole process. We built skills around how to find information people try to conceal. It brought to light what is transparent and what is not.” 

Their experience also caused team members to consider their own privilege, something they all discussed. 

“We talked about how to form a genuine allyship and avoid tropes of the white saviour,” she said. “It helped us stay grounded. We were constantly asking questions, since we had no lived experience with the issue.”

Master’s student Erin Flanagan and her classmates at Black Creek Community Farm, visiting with the members of the SweetGrass Roots Collective.
Master’s student Erin Flanagan and her classmates at Black Creek Community Farm, visiting with the members of the SweetGrass Roots Collective.

Karodia, a master’s student in health policy and equity, chose to work with the Sweetgrass Roots Collective to harvest sweet water because she remembers childhood trips to maple syrup farms and was also eager to give back to the Indigenous community during a time of reconciliation. 

“This was deconstructing what I knew about maple syrup,” she said, referring to sweet water, also known as sap. “And after all the years of hurt inflicted on the Indigenous Peoples, they still welcome settlers with open arms, asking us to come learn from them and join them. Forming these spaces allows us to see the common ground we all hold. Under the scope of human rights, this type of bonding, trust, and collaboration humanizes one another and we begin to feel like we are one body and obliged to protect one another.” 

Karodia found many similarities between Indigenous Peoples and Muslims in Canada, including adherence to a lunar calendar and promoting gratitude and sustainable living. 

“The way they hold their natural spaces and respect every living creature is very similar to Islam, and the West has discriminated and looked down on Islam in the same way they have on Indigenous practices and beliefs,” she said. “When we talk about agency, we think about protests and demonstrations, but bringing awareness can also be through intimate spaces like this, about bolstering your community together. Even the smallest action, such as boiling sweet water and canning it so it can go to Indigenous people throughout the province, makes a difference.” 

After their EE opportunities, the teams each presented a concept they learned during their work and related it to their classroom learning. Their presentations fostered thought-provoking discussion that Flanagan found “very rewarding.” 

“This practical experience was so refreshing,” she said. “It was the first time I’d done research in a group setting and the team dynamic was really enjoyable. We build some concrete skills that we could put on a resume. It was great that Professor Vorstermans offered us this opportunity.” 

For her part, Vorstermans says students’ graduate work “focuses a lot on theory. When you put that together with work on the ground, you realize that things can be complicated and difficult.  

“As the students move into expert mode as researchers, they need to know that their learning should be directed by those experiencing harms, injustices and oppression,” she said. “Listening is an important skill.”