Sept. 19, 2019

Community Health Sciences postdoctoral fellowship program prepares grads for the workforce

Researchers reflect on their fellowship journeys during Postdoc Appreciation Week

September marks new opportunities — students head back to school, the season starts to change.

And for postdoctoral scholar Dr. Monica Cepoiu-Martin, PhD, it’s the start of a brand new job, one that she is able to take on thanks to the training and skills she received as part of a real-world fellowship offered by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), supported by O’Brien Institute for Public Health members.

The CIHR Health Services Impact (HSI) Fellowship enabled Cepoiu-Martin to spend the past two years with Alberta Health Services (AHS) investigating the role of community paramedics, while providing her with practical, real-world experience most other postdocs don’t get.

Kirsten Fiest

Kirsten Fiest is HSI Fellowship co-ordinator for the CSM Department of Community Health Sciences.

O’Brien Institute for Public Health

It was those kinds of skills and experiences that helped her land a new job as program lead for the McCaig Institute’s Mobility for Life project at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), she says.

“We had training for project management, networking, a lot of training that you don’t find in any postdoctoral program,” says Cepoiu-Martin, who worked as a physician in Romania before moving to Canada and completing her master's in epidemiology and PhD in health services research.

The HSI Fellowship focuses on continuous health and health system improvement, and requires co-supervision from a university researcher and a health-systems practitioner. In Cepoiu-Martin’s case, her supervisors were Dr. William Ghali, MD, scientific director of the O’Brien Institute, and Dr. Verna Yiu, MD, FRCPC, president and CEO of AHS.

The program was designed to reconceptualise what postdoctoral training looks like in Canada, says Dr. Kirsten Fiest, PhD, HSI Fellowship co-ordinator for the CSM department of Community Health Sciences.

Cynthia Weijs

Cynthia Weijs focused on the epidemic of tooth decay in young children for her fellowship.

O’Brien Institute for Public Health

“A lot of people are getting PhDs and it’s harder and harder to get a job in academia. The point of this fellowship was to embed people, fellows, into the health-care system,” says Fiest, who is the O’Brien Institute’s executive committee co-lead in its new trainee portfolio, which was created to acknowledge the important role that trainees play in the research landscape.

Preventing tooth decay in kids

Feist says HSI fellows are tackling critical issues in health systems, including pain management, assessment of rural paramedics, and the epidemic of tooth decay in young children — the focus of Dr. Cynthia Weijs’, PhD, time in the HSI fellowship program.

For her fellowship, Weijs, formerly a dental hygienist, is trying to understand how to better prevent dental decay in children between the ages of one and six.

She’s developed a cavity prevention program that is ready to pilot in several domestic violence shelters in Calgary this fall, and is raising awareness about children’s dental decay as an important public health problem, a role she says is a rewarding mix of creating and using evidence.

Weijs’ supervisors are O’Brien Institute members Dr. Lindsay McLaren, PhD, Dr. Katrina Milaney, PhD, and Dr. Deb McNeil, PhD, adjunct professor with UCalgary Nursing, along with Dr. Rafael Figueiredo, DDS, from the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta.

“In general, health organizations trust and respect evidence from an academic perspective, but it’s still quite challenging to bring that evidence to practice in a lot of ways,” Weijs says, adding that’s not the case with this fellowship.

“I can see that I’ve helped make change already and am continuing to develop my skills because of this opportunity.”

The program also bridges the gap between PhD programs, and the career paths that many graduates take, Weijs says.

Monica Cepoiu-Martin

Monica Cepoiu-Martin spent the past two years with Alberta Health Services.

O'Brien Institute for Public Health

Most PhD graduates work outside of academia, but very few traditional PhD programs include workplace skill development, experiential learning, or professional skills training. The HSI program aims to equip the next generation of leaders with the right skills for broader career readiness and maximum health system impact.

Patient-centred approach to community rehabilitation

The major project of Dr. Kiran Pohar Manhas, PhD, during her HSI Fellowship involved examining the implementation and impact of a patient-centred model of care for community rehabilitation that aimed to standardize care across the province. Working with AHS, Pohar Manhas explored shared decision-making between health-care providers and patients in diverse community-rehabilitation sites across Alberta.

“I always thought I wanted to be a professor and have kind of a traditional academic path,” she says. “What I really like about the Health System Impact Fellowship was it could promote me on this traditional academic path, but it would open doors and let me see what it would be like to be a more embedded researcher.”

Pohar Manhas’s supervisors are O’Brien Institute member Tracy Wasylak, adjunct assistant professor with UCalgary Nursing, and chief program officer, Strategic Clinical Networks, AHS; and the University of Alberta's Dr. Sunita Vohra, MD, and Dr. Karin Olson, RN, PhD.

The HSI Fellowship program prepares PhD trainees and graduates to achieve success and make positive health and societal impacts in a diverse range of sectors and roles, both within and beyond traditional university settings, says Dr. Rick Glazier, MD, scientific director of the Institute of Health Services and Policy Research at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

“The Health System Impact Fellows are rising stars in health services and policy research and, through their embedded projects within health system organizations, the co-mentorship they receive from health system and academic leaders, and the opportunities they have to develop skills in areas like leadership and change management, they will be poised to become future leaders of health system transformation.”

The University of Calgary is celebrating our postdoctoral scholars during the National Postdoc Appreciation Week of September 16 to 20, 2019 to recognize the significant contributions that postdoctoral scholars make to research and discovery. Read more about how we are celebrating our postdocs.