My independent studies in health sciences have opened many doors, taught me so much and connected me to so many people. Outside of the university, I met physicians and learned things that I would never have learned in the classroom. ~ Katrina Taylor, fourth-year biological sciences student with a minor in women and gender studies

It’s Katrina Taylor's first year at the University of Lethbridge, and she receives an email she almost deletes. Like any new student, she’s busier than ever and finding her classes each day is enough of a challenge. But something keeps her from pressing the ‘delete’ button; something catches her eye. While she had no idea what the Research Internship Concentration (RIC) was, Katrina listened to the little voice in her head asking ‘why not’ and hit ‘reply’ instead. “That turned out to be one of the absolute best things I’ve done in my degree.”

For Katrina Taylor, every problem in the world is an opportunity to create change. Whether she’s studying or completing research across the country, she takes the same ‘why not’ approach. “If you switch your mindset from I have to do this, to I get to do this, it makes it a lot easier to study. I don’t have to study. I have the opportunity to study, which is awesome. It’s not a chore. It’s something you’re fortunate to be able to do.”

The RIC is a four-year research-intensive formal concentration offered by the Department of Biological Sciences. As early as her first year, Katrina was exposed to multiple biology fields, including behavioural toxicology and cancer biology. “It was awesome. I really liked cancer biology, so that’s where I stuck for the next four years!” But it was more than research alone. Paired with older mentors, Katrina had an abundance of resources at her disposal. These mentors became her closest friends, taught her how to study, apply for research awards and guided her in classes they had already taken. “They were everything I could have hoped for and more.” Now, Katrina has her own group of young RIC mentees and hopes to expand this opportunity to those outside of the RIC. “It’s also how I met all of my friends and my partner,” she smiles.

“The RIC was instrumental to my undergraduate degree. But, if you weren’t in the RIC, you didn’t get this same amazing opportunity!” Katrina’s friend and third-year neuroscience student Kush Patel was not in the RIC and wanted this chance “This made me want to think of a way to bring this phenomenal experience to other students.” With Kush as her co-president and co-founder, Katrina is working to get their Undergraduate Science Research Mentorship Association (USRMA) initiative up off the ground. With COVID many first year students aren’t on campus, but Katrina isn’t worried. “We laid some great groundwork modelled off of the RIC, so that when people do come back, they will be able to have mentors, gain experience in research and have a path to follow,” Katrina adds.

For Katrina, the opportunity to research and collaborate with fellow students catapulted her to success in ways she never imagined. “My independent studies in health sciences opened many doors, taught me so much and connected me to many people. Outside of the university, I met physicians and learned things that I would never have learned in the classroom.” This project involved researching factors influencing medical abortion access across the nation, an immense undertaking. Katrina keeps a level head and cuts through stigma with fact. She wants nobody left behind. “Medical abortion is a way to reduce barriers folks experience trying to access abortion care, especially in rural, marginalized and low-socioeconomic areas,” she explains.

Her initial goal with her independent studies was to gather data from all of Southern Alberta, but the project blossomed after she emailed Alberta Medical Association. “They said, ‘we can do all of Alberta’ and so we did all of Alberta. Then my supervisor suggested, ‘why not all of Canada?’ In the end, five provinces responded to me! It was so much fun.”

Katrina refers to this research opportunity as her ‘capping project,’ given that it became so much more than two independent studies. “I am the director at large for the Pro-Choice Society of Lethbridge and Southern Alberta. I want to go into women’s health, so this has been a phenomenal way to connect what I’m learning through my minor to my research, volunteer work and future career goals.”

Thanks to the U of L’s liberal education approach, Katrina was able to explore projects outside of her major and research that fed her passion. Four years later, Katrina is almost finished her biological sciences degree, with a minor in women and gender studies and a concentration in research (RIC). By participating in the RIC throughout undergrad, she felt guided and supported and built a strong research base she used to complete three independent studies, a capping project and an undergraduate honours thesis in cancer biology. Aside from research, Katrina continues to volunteer with Frontiere College Literacy Group assisting children with their literacy skills and as a ‘mealtime mentor’ at the Chinook Health Centre. Volunteering is a reminder to Katrina to be grateful for opportunity without getting lost in the details. “Seeing how fortunate you are, to be in university, to be able to read and write, not worry about where your next meal is coming from or your health, it makes you more appreciative of everything you have.”

The U of L allowed Katrina to explore many avenues and follow her heart, something she believes will help her professionally. “There were so many opportunities to do anything you wanted. To do interdisciplinary research, connect with your professors and go further in what you enjoy. A professor has never shot me down. If you’re willing to put in the work, they’re willing to help.” At a smaller institution, students can receive one-on-one help and attention not available at larger institutions. “Academically, professionally and personally, I have had nothing but support from the professors here,” she adds. “If I have a personal issue, I can go to any one of my three supervisors, and I know they have my back for all of it. So that has been absolutely phenomenal.”

While Katrina hopes to attend medical school, she has conditionally accepted an offer into a master’s program in gender and social justice at the University of Alberta, which she may pursue first. “Rural communities in Alberta and Canada have struggled to have comprehensive and available healthcare. I would love to give back to rural communities and rural health while addressing barriers to women’s health.”

For anyone facing a lack of confidence, Katrina reminds us to follow our passion anyway. “Shoot your shot. The worst thing somebody can do is say no, and then you’re no further behind than you were before. Advocate for yourself and ask! Be willing to try new things and just go for it. There’s nobody to hold you back but you.” Whether it’s a one-off email or a poster that catches your eye, Katrina’s story is a reminder that sometimes the most important step is hitting ‘reply.’