To encourage more students to consider studying biology, members of McGill’s Department of Biology have created a video featuring five current students sharing their stories of finding their place and pursuing diverse paths within the discipline.
Produced and edited by student Wendy Lin, A Glimpse into Biology at McGill is the product of a collaborative effort spearheaded by the McGill Biology Student Union (MBSU). The video’s release this summer marked the first important milestone in an ongoing outreach campaign to give current and prospective students a better understanding of the opportunities available to them in the Department.
Outreach vital for equity and diversity
The campaign is the brainchild of Layla Razek, a 2022 B.Sc. graduate who majored in biology and minored in political science. Razek gained deeper insight into the perspective of prospective students through a series of interviews she conducted while investigating ways to improve accessibility and equity at McGill’s School of Physical & Occupational Therapy (SPOT) through the admissions process.
Razek’s research project, which she completed in the summer of 2021 as a Global Health Scholar under the supervision of Hiba Zafran, an Assistant Professor at SPOT, led her to conclude that a lack of effective efforts on the part of members of the university community to reach out to students and promote the opportunities available to them had the potential to leave both prospective and current students feeling alienated and unwelcome.
“Outreach was a huge factor that was missing, and that came out a lot in the interviews we conducted with students and others,” Razek says. “Specifically at McGill, we can’t expect underrepresented communities to just come here, we need to reach out and do the work on our end.”
Biology rises to the outreach challenge
Razek went on to serve as Vice-President External on the MBSU for the 2021-22 academic year, and it was in this role that the idea of producing videos came about as one possible response to the question: How do we reach out to underrepresented students? As a popular and widely-circulatable medium amongst potential students, the idea of creating videos gained support from the Department of Biology’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee and the Department backed this up by providing funding for the project.
“We are working to make the experience of all undergraduates (as well as other members of our community) more inclusive and welcoming,” says Professor Alanna Watt, the Interim Chair of Biology who also chaired the Department’s EDI committee from 2020 to 2022. “This video is a testament to that, and the fabulous undergraduate students who are trying to demystify the university experience.
“All branches of science thrive when we have a diversity of viewpoints and a diverse range of scientists making scientific contributions,” Watt adds.
Razek also pulled from her own experience at McGill as inspiration for the project. “The idea came from my time as a student, trying to find representation, not having many professors I could look up to as a woman of colour; but also knowing that there are so many students who are doing great work in Biology and deserve to be highlighted.”
An ongoing effort
Sofia Reynoso, U4 biology student and the current VP External for the MBSU, values the project and plans to move Razek’s brainchild forward.
A second video is in the works, with a planned release in the Winter 2023 semester, but Reynoso continues to brainstorm other possibilities for the campaign by speaking with students, faculty and outreach officers. “It can be daunting to talk to professors as a student, so we’re looking to see what is most useful for [current] and prospective students.”
Reynoso, a Latina student from the U.S., recognizes underrepresented students can be susceptible to experiencing “imposter syndrome.” She wants to take on the project to minimize that feeling of being out of place and share “how much fun the Biology Department is, and for people to know that there are so many possibilities in this program.”
The next step for the project is contacting advisers and outreach officers at McGill, and finalizing a list of schools to which all the videos can be sent, says Razek.
Nancy Nelson, Student Advising Administrator for the Department, has been helping in the efforts.
“I’ve been circulating the video to several Montreal high schools and have had positive feedback,” she says.
For now, Razek wishes to focus the effort on schools in her home city of Montreal: “We just want to start local. Many Black students at McGill are not from Montreal. Many are from around the world, which is amazing, but there is definitely a lack of representation for Black students coming from Montreal.”
Watch the A Glimpse into Biology at McGill video below