"The Best Graduate Course We've Never Taken"

April 19, 2013

Health, Environment, and Indigenous Communities Research Group Enhances Graduate Students Learning Experience

Graduate students from the Health, Environment, and Indigenous Communities Research Group at their photography exhibition, Food For Thought

When Dr. Chris Furgal started bringing his graduate students together to share their research, he had no idea that the collective would take on a life of its own. But the Health, Environment, and Indigenous Communities Research Group exceeded all of his expectations. And the group’s success has drawn interest from other Trent professors who want to replicate the model.

“Graduate school can be a lonely and isolating experience,” explains Dr. Furgal, an associate professor in Trent University’s Indigenous Environmental Studies Program. “I wanted to create a place where the students I supervise could come for support, and interact socially with other young researchers sharing similar experiences. I didn’t expect them to become as involved or to get as excited as they have about the idea.”

The research group, which began informally four years ago, was formalized as the Health, Environment, and Indigenous Communities Research Group in 2012. It is currently comprised of sixteen graduate students, four post-doctoral fellows, and six research assistants. All are supervised by, or working with, Dr. Furgal, and are doing research in Indigenous communities, many in the North. The group is multi-disciplinary, with members cutting across four Trent graduate programs: Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies M.A. program, Indigenous Studies Ph.D. program, Sustainability Studies M.A. program, and Environmental & Life Sciences M.Sc. and Ph.D. programs.

Every two weeks the members come together to provide an update on their research and to identify challenges they face. At each session there is a discussion topic, led by one or more of the students, that is of interest to all members. “As a supervisor, these meetings are an efficient way for me to stay apprised of my students’ progress,” says Dr. Furgal. “But the meetings also provide students with opportunities to receive critical feedback from their peers and learn from one another.”

Kaitlin Breton-Honeyman describes the learning as synergistic, with members constantly encouraging and feeding off each other. Ms. Breton-Honeyman, a Ph.D. candidate in the Environmental & Life Sciences program, has been involved in the group from its earliest stages and seen it evolve to its present state. She describes it as the “best grad course we’ve never taken” because of how it has helped shape her thinking about research, how to make presentations, and how to move forward with future research.

Dr. Furgal notes that the collective has grown beyond its original purpose of sharing research. “The group has become something that complements all of our graduate programs for these students. We have our own server where students can share files, a common lab place, and a web site. And we have common resources, such as literature and data bases, which the students contribute to and can access.”

Collectively, members are engaged in activities which they would not normally do as individual students. Shirin Nuesslein, communications and outreach coordinator for the group, points to a photo exhibition put together by members. “The photo display is an example of how the group is reaching out beyond itself to the broader community,” says Ms. Nuesslein. “It makes the research being conducted and the issues being discussed at Trent University more accessible to the greater Peterborough community.” The photo exhibition, which tells a story of Inuit and their relationship with the environment, was part of the recent SPARK Photo Festival in Peterborough.

Importantly, the group has cultivated social relationships that go beyond the formal group sessions, and which strengthen their overall student experience. Ms. Nuesslein says “Meaningful friendships have been formed and a high level of care and reciprocity exists amongst members. Students are willing to help each other, and the success of one research group member is celebrated as the success of the entire group.”

This willingness to help others is important to new graduate students, says Emily Willson, who is in her first year in the Masters of Arts in Sustainability program. “As a newcomer to Peterborough, I didn’t know anyone, but the group was welcoming and inviting,” says Ms. Willson. “And as a new graduate student, I find the group is helpful as I develop my research proposal. It’s a different way of learning – interacting with people from other disciplines has taught me a whole different way of looking at things.”

As the activities of the group continue to expand, Dr. Furgal says they are at the point where they can put together a discussion paper series on topics related to their research. Ms. Nuesslein adds that a series of video podcasts is also in the works.

Long term, Dr. Furgal would like to expand the group into a research institute at Trent, bringing together researchers from business administration, Indigenous studies, environmental studies and sciences, along with individuals working on health and environment issues in psychology. “Trent has the business component, the environmental sciences component, and the cultural component for working with Indigenous communities effectively and appropriately,” says Dr. Furgal. “I see a great opportunity here at Trent to pull it all together in the formation of a unique research institute, involving other faculty members and other disciplines.”