Researcher Q&A: Sabrina Tang, M.H.Sc. Candidate in Clinical Engineering at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto

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Photo courtesy of Fiona Lee

Sabrina Tang is a Masters of Health Science student in clinical engineering at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. She completed her B.A.Sc. in industrial engineering from the University of Toronto. She works under the supervision of Professor Michael Carter from the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto and Professor Sonia Vanderby from the University of Saskatchewan College of Engineering.

Tell me a little bit about your research.

Broadly speaking, my research deals with how we can make healthcare systems more efficient in terms of cost, human resources, and resource allocation. My thesis is on CT scanner accessibility for patients in Saskatchewan. I wanted to have policy angle, which makes my research a little further away from the clinician-patient interaction. I was interested in developing a tool policy makers could use to improve CT scanner access in Saskatchewan using available data. In our mathematical model, we have constrained the problem as such that we are only looking at the travel distance and hopefully, associated road networks and commute times for patients. We are also looking at basic patient information such as gender and age to get a comprehensive understanding of the patient demographic.

How did you get interested in this area of research?

I have always had a passion for improving healthcare systems. During my undergrad in industrial engineering, I learned about the mathematical concepts that I could apply in my research. However, I actually had the opportunity to follow clinicians around in their daily routine to appreciate the clinical contexts that the mathematical models may be applied. I wanted to try clinical engineering to get further appreciation of the clinical context, knowing that I had a decent grasp of mathematical modeling from undergrad.

What is a typical day like for you?

The first year in the program was course based with six courses. Then, I interned for the summer, and currently I am working on both my thesis and another part-time internship, so depending on my obligations, my day varies widely.

What are some challenges you face as a researcher in your masters program?

I live at Massey College which gives me the opportunity to be part of a very interdisciplinary community. However, I have friends who otherwise feel very socially isolated within the university, with little sense of community with anyone outside of the program. If you’re not taking a course, you can be spending up to eight hours in a lab, and the only people you end up interacting with on a daily basis are people in your lab. If the government and the university really want to advance research that is socially impactful, an interdisciplinary outlook needs to be fostered among researchers, because their findings have implications beyond the laboratory. Even if the scope of your research is very narrow, having a broader perspective of where it could go is very valuable.

A lot of my work relies on the collection of big data. I contact every single CT clinic in Saskatchewan and completed the ethics review for each one. Ideally, this could have been done through a provincially centralized system. Our research area deals with very granular data, so it can be challenging.

One thing that would help my research is access to free statistical consulting services, if the university offered them. Since we are working with large amounts of data, and having someone to professionally look over your statistical work would be helpful. It would be unfortunate to have a paper retracted because of a poor statistical analysis. Not everyone is or needs to be an expert in statistics, but there should be someone who can be consulted.

Your training was in industrial engineering. Right now, do you identify as such, or rather as an operations researcher, big-data person, a science, an engineer or something else entirely? How do you think that affects the way your results are communicated?

I don’t define myself in any of those ways necessarily, and it also depends on how you define each of those terms. From a methodological perspective, I am an operations researcher. If you define an engineer as someone who is involved in problem solving, then definitely, my research has such implications.

Regardless of labels, I think if you are a good researcher, you will communicate your results in a way that resonates with your audience. This is perhaps particular in the health field, but as a researcher in my area who does mathematical modeling, you would have two papers: one for a health journal, which focuses on the health impacts without providing a detailed description of the mathematics, and one describing the mathematical models and its generalized applications.

What are some your interests outside your research work? How do they complements your research?

Since my research is in healthcare, I try to learn as much as I can about the healthcare system in general by meeting people from different disciplines. I organize events for Massey Grand Rounds and last year I was involved with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement Open School at the University of Toronto, which is also interdisciplinary and focuses on patient safety and quality improvement methods. This helps me put my research into a broader context and also provides ideas for future research/opportunities. To de-stress, I participate in intramural sports and try to be as active as possible.

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“Channel your inner old white man” – Some reflections on stereotype threat

1795 Portrait of Pierre Seriziat by Jacques Louis David

Yesterday, I was studying in the library with a friend of mine, and discussing how power dynamics play out in professional and academic relationships. Too often, women and minorities underestimate their own capacity and potential, which in turn relegates them to lower positions within any organizational hierarchy. To counter this, she hypothesized, perhaps we should ‘channel our inner old white man’.

Though at first, this prescription may sound absurdly and blatantly racist, classist, sexist, ageist and a lot of other terrible things, I think the heart of it exposes a key behavioural pattern that shapes our power dynamics and image, specifically in Western contexts where a certain projection of confidence is half the battle in convincing others of your aptitude for any task or position. The archetypal ‘old white man’, as used in this context invokes an image of entitlement, privilege, confident reassurance coupled with at least the pretence of expertise for any task he sets his mind to.  He can take up space wherever he wants and go wherever he pleases, and associate freely with any member of society and expect to be taken seriously. It is because of the pervasiveness of this archetype, and the stereotypes surrounding it, do we continue to see women and minorities having a hard time imagining themselves in positions of authority not historically associated with their race or gender.

This is obviously a very simplistic model. A person’s sense of confidence, authority or self-worth is not entirely derived from the race or gender with which they identify. However, due to the phenomenon of stereotype threat, many women, for instance, tend to leave STEM fields before reaching top positions, whereas many minorities don’t feel particularly welcome to participate in professional performing arts, especially, TV and film acting.

Currently on my path towards changing careers into social science research, I am feeling a similar kind of mental road block. I was adequately confident in my abilities as an engineering student to know that I would survive through the program and beyond if I only persevered through, despite the stereotype of women not being good enough in STEM fields, but this in part had to do with the fact that my own mother is a renowned scientific researcher and academic in her field, and I had a good role model to follow. I knew my aspirations were within my reach. However, when I steered my direction into serious social science research, I didn’t have anyone similar to look up to.

In class today, another friend was speaking about her experience at a conference this past weekend. In private conversation later, she revealed that she is increasingly unsure if academia is the place for her, given ‘how people have their heads so far up their asses’, and how insular, cliquey, and self-reflexive the whole event felt. Again, I thought this was a manifestation of stereotype threat and additionally, impostor syndrome. She kept mentioning how having a down-to-earth personality, she was probably not a good fit for the ‘pretentious’ air of academia. When did pretentiousness become a prerequisite for success in academia? Are there systemic policies in place that impede the participation and performance of the so-called ‘down-to-earth’?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I feel like many continue to feel left out of their chosen fields because of one aspect of their personality or background that they have no control over, and this is really a shame. I hope one day, we don’t have to ‘channel our inner old white man’ to assert our authority or be taken seriously in life and work.

Community and Isolation

With friends in Pride 2012

As I get increasingly immersed into school life once again, I have been inadvertently running algorithms in my head to figure out the precise nature of my desired work-life balance. My attitude towards it has changed over the course of my post-secondary education, and it’s quite interesting to observe how and why.

While in undergrad, it was important for me to live on campus, either in university residence or in off-campus housing within 5 minutes from the university. It wanted to immerse myself in campus life, and to extend my energies in every way I could within the community and in essence, get all my social needs met through the immediately available community. This strategy did help me to become the person I am today, and I met lots of interesting people, however, towards the end of my undergrad, I felt that the pervasive influence of such a large circle can be stifling to growth beyond what the University of Toronto could offer (which is a lot of things, but there will always remain holes in experiences).

When I first moved off campus, there was an immediate sense of relief in finding some sanctuary away from my academic and extracurricular lives. I am by no means a proponent of urban sprawl through suburbanization of populations driven by a need for isolation from major centres of activity, however, I finally saw the value in establishing good physical boundaries between my school/extracurricular/work and internal lives. In order to be the best student, involved member of the university community or employee, I needed a good separation from those physical realms in order to foster my internal life.

Community is something I continue to benefit from, and one of the best things about being back in school is access to an immediate community that evolves relatively organically and doesn’t require much planning. This is something I truly missed as a working engineer, because the extent to which the work community existed did not meet my varied and complex social and intellectual needs, and as a result, my overall psychosocial health suffered.

I still think people ought to have good separation of academic/work life from their internal lives, and find their own specific ways to achieve this. I have found that for me, this is accomplished through physical separation (though not necessarily distance) and relative isolation from my academic/work circles. Although the majority of my present social life intersects with my academic life and people I know through it, some autonomy over when and where I situate each of those in my schedule has had liberating effects.

Emotional sensitivity and the scientist

Recently, I have been pondering the question regarding whether or not, apart from delineating the boundaries of scientific endeavours through ethics, the emotional faculties of individual scientists are somehow superfluous to the scientific process. I would like to distance myself from the trope of scientists that is so ubiquitous in our culture that deems them hyper-rational and emotionally obtuse, and while doing so, probe whether innate or culturally-informed proclivities to being swayed by emotions, and by extension, ideology, is at all beneficial to the scientist.

The very nature of the scientific method, if it can be termed as such, suggests that any interference that is based on anything other than empirical fact detracts from the evidence-based nature of science. However, in my experiences as someone who has suffered from clinical depression and continues to be under the influence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) a large portion of the year, I have found that my ability to do rigorous analysis is sometimes influenced by these factors. In these times, it is not exactly the depression itself that inhibits cognitive and physical functioning required in the scientist’s realm, but rather the state of low-energy that is difficult to counteract, even with the help of medication, visceral stimulation and exercise.  Thus, it is not the emotional volatility itself that is the problem, but the circumstances surrounding it that can pose problems for the working scientist.

There is always the looming danger of Lysenkoism, and as such ideologically-driven science, with predetermined conclusions is something we all should be wary of, when speaking about the role of emotions in science. However, I would like to approach this question in the same way people approach the question of diversity among scientists, in that having a group of people who come from diverse backgrounds is often beneficial to the field itself. As such, what place does neurodiversity have in this, if any? By extension, how do experiences of mental illness inform the quest for scientific knowledge among individual scientists? Most studies regarding diversity in science focus on gender, race, socioeconomic backgrounds and more recently, sexual orientation, but it sure would be interesting to see trends in mental health status among scientists. I understand that the mental health remains a largely taboo subject throughout society, but a discussion with regards to it in the STEM fields would be of particular interest.