If the idea of King’s students, richly educated in the humanities, working in medical research surprises you, well… please read on. One thing King’s students, alumni and faculty have always known is that the humanities, at the core of a King’s education, create insightful, broad ranging and exceptionally adaptable professionals.
Case in point: the Scotia Scholars Award program has awarded two King’s humanities students, Emma Martel, a second-year student and Abigail Hanson, a third-year student, with opportunities that will take them to the core of two important medical research programs. Operated by Research Nova Scotia and funded by the provincial department of Health and Wellness, the Scotia Scholars program supports research to improve health and healthcare systems in Nova Scotia. Martel will do research for a project on pregnancy during pandemics and Hanson will play a research role in the development of Books by Heart, a program that will bring digital and audiobooks to coronary hospital patients.
These awards to King’s humanities students are, in fact, something of a coup—for Martel and Hanson, whose achievements have earned them the awards, but also for some determined Kings faculty and staff members, who are enthusiastically tackling the barriers that sometimes exist where perception of the humanities and their value in the working world are concerned.
As Coordinator of Experiential Learning at King’s, Joanna Sheridan is tasked with helping students carry their humanities education into the professional world. “The humanities are so rich in meaning, offering the most important ideas through human history,” Sheridan says. “We want to create opportunities for humanities students to take their knowledge into the world and get some experience in workplace culture.” Gordon McOuat, professor of humanities, who teaches in King’s and Dalhousie’s shared Certificate in Medical Humanities program, is like-minded; for years now he’s been sending students from his third-year Contemporary Studies Program class to labs so that they could work on the bench with practicing scientists. Together, Sheridan and McOuat turned their attention to Research Nova Scotia’s Scotia Scholars Awards program as an ideal, working world point of entry for King’s humanities students taking the Certificate in Medical Humanities. “We’re looking at how all the assets and skills that one has in the humanities and social sciences can be brought to bear on giving a different perspective on what it means to be healthy,” McOuat says.
After a one-year pilot project that gave Research Nova Scotia a chance to see what King’s students could bring to the table, they signed on: King’s is now formally a part of the program. Both scholars will be supervised by McOuat and will have mentors working in healthcare associated with their projects as well.
In the second year of a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree, Emma Martel was still in high school in Halifax, N.S., when she became fascinated by the world of medicine; she wrote the final paper of her International Baccalaureate program on the social impact of the Great Plague in London. Within her combined honours (Early Modern Studies and Religious Studies) her interest continues, heightened, not surprisingly, by the pandemic we’ve been living through. She’s taking the Certificate in Medical Humanities and within that, has studied with McOuat, as well as Associate Professor of Humanities, Mélanie Frappier, whose Plagues, Pandemics and People course Martel cites as a major influence. The project she will be working on as a Scotia Scholar, Pandemic Flu and Maternity Care in Nova Scotia, is a natural fit.
“I’ll be looking at how maternity health care came about in the province, what its goals have been and how it has interacted with flu outbreaks,” Martel explains. “Flu in pregnant women has a higher incidence of severe complications. I’ll be exploring how care for pregnant women with flu could be improved based on historical findings.” As with most things today, Covid plays a part. “Covid has had a huge influence on how we, as a province, respond to health emergencies,” she continues. “And flu opens up a huge risk of secondary conditions which can be massive issues in pregnancy. These issues can be incredibly affected when there is limited access to healthcare during a pandemic or when the system is overtaxed. I’ll be looking at things that might fall outside the radar of researchers who have a more medically-focused approach.”
Halifax native Abby Hanson shares her fellow Scotia Scholar’s powerful interest in medicine; a third-year student majoring in history, Hanson considered medicine as a career path. Then, during the Foundation Year Program (FYP) at King’s, she found herself drawn to philosophy. Studying for the Certificate in Medical Humanities has only deepened that interest. Participating as a researcher in Books by Heart, a new cardiology ward program at Halifax’s QEII Hospital, is a logical progression of her interests.
The hospital is working on the development of a digital and audio library to support cardiac patients in their recovery while on the cardiac ward. “The work I’ll be doing will look at how the library can improve patients’ mental health, which can be negatively impacted after a cardiac episode, and how it might influence their recovery,” Hanson explains. “It must be incredibly isolating to be in the cardiac ward, often very suddenly after a very dramatic occurrence. And Covid hasn’t helped—with so many barriers, it’s made it difficult for patients to connect with caregivers in a personal way.”
Cited by her professors for her natural empathy, Hanson will be interviewing patients on the ward to develop qualitative research as to what patients would like and how it might impact their mental health and recovery. “We believe Abby will bring a critical humanities lens as well as a sociological approach to helping us understand what bringing book culture into a hospital ward might mean for our patients, families and staff,” says Dr. Gabrielle Horne, the QEII cardiologist spearheading the program. Horne is also a professor of medicine at Dalhousie and herself a King’s graduate. “We want to find out whether taking better care of the emotional needs of our patients and those around them can help our patients to stay on track in getting healthier and even living longer.”
Research Nova Scotia’s Scotia Scholars Awards provide financial support to research trainees with exceptional potential who are engaged in a health research project at participating Nova Scotia institutions. Funding for award program is provided by the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness.