Since 2014, Dr. Tracie Risling’s lab has become a permanent home for undergraduate students. Every summer, Risling, faculty member in the Department of Nursing, has watched as the RisTech Lab grew from having one student, to two then three students. This summer, she will be working with a record number of six undergraduates, some new and some returning. RisTech focuses on health informatics when it meets patient empowerment and advocacy, and has become so popular among undergraduates that a waiting list has developed. The demand for this opportunity easily outstrips the funding, and Risling finds herself building the infrastructure as the initiative expands.
Although the summer work term at RisTech is only eight weeks long, the energy and productivity of this group of keeners is enough to “drive her research for the rest of the year.” RisTech students do not necessarily need any prior experience, or to be enrolled in nursing to secure a research assistantship. Risling’s research investigates how user-centered design can improve patient engagement. Because of the interdisciplinarity of her research, she is sure that “everyone can find a home in RisTech.” Students from fields as varied as Pharmacy, Computer Science, English and Sociology, all can do exceptional work simply provided they are hard workers and willing to learn. “If you do the work, you get the credit,” Risling says, and that includes co-presenting and co-publishing papers, such as this article that was recently published in The Journal of Medical Internet Research.
RisTech’s unique environment is possible because Risling sees her assistants as equal partners in research. As far as she’s concerned, “[undergraduates] need mentorship and support, but they’re colleagues like any other.” She looks forward to summer work with her junior researchers. Aside from the technical training they receive, students gain experience in collaborative work, research ethics approval processes, and presentation techniques. They see the reality of research: how it is often interdisciplinary, team-based, and reliant on ‘soft skills’ like critical thinking. Risling makes a point of not simply instructing her assistants, but fostering an atmosphere of open communication where students can ask questions and even challenge the supervisor’s research approach.
The team often has weekly debriefing meetings at Fable, an ice-cream shop in Saskatoon, making the routine of “Fable Fridays” ingrained in the culture of RisTech. Students connect personally and professionally with peers in different disciplines as well as graduate students, who provide a tiered mentorship experience. Risling is conscious of guiding and nurturing students’ development. At the beginning of each summer she asks students to identify parts of the research project they are familiar with. Although they start by working within their comfort zone, by the end of the work term she encourages them to go beyond it and challenges them to do something new.
The effort always pays off. What Risling gets in return is a group of researchers who enrich her work and give her the momentum to continue for another year. “As professors,” she explains, “we can become jaded.” But having students around reminds her to “celebrate the small victories,” because undergraduates can be enthused by initial micro-successes – like having an abstract or proposal accepted to a conference – and their excitement is infectious. At the end of the day, “It’s my undergraduates that make my research work… I can’t imagine a summer without them.”