When Samiha Mohsen isn’t in the classroom, she’s pushing herself in the swimming pool as a member of the University of Toronto’s varsity swim team. An elite swimmer, Samiha has qualified for the Canadian Olympic trials, is a two-time African gold medalist, and most recently returned from the Arab Championships winning six gold medals. She’s also a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto.
Samiha’s impressive dedication both inside and outside of the pool has helped her achieve success, but she says she wouldn’t be where she is without support and credits ongoing mentorship to her success, especially throughout her education.
“It takes a lot of people to raise a successful physician,” says Samiha, who is a participant of the Sunnybrook Program to Access Research Knowledge for Black and Indigenous Medical Students or SPARK. “I’ve always wanted to practice medicine and conduct research, but as a young person coming to North America from Egypt on my own, I faced many barriers. My experience emphasizes the importance of mentorship.”
At 16, Samiha left Egypt to attend Grand Canyon University, where she was awarded a full undergraduate scholarship for swimming. After three years in the U.S, Samiha wanted a stable place to call home for the long educational journey ahead of her. She applied for permanent residency in Canada and began her master’s in epidemiology at the University of Calgary.
“Before coming to Canada, I cold-emailed about 70 supervisors before connecting with Dr. Kirsten Fiest at the University of Calgary.” says Samiha. “It was through her mentorship that I learned how to learn. She provided me with unique opportunities, connections and accommodations, such as a flexible schedule while I was fasting for Ramadan. She also helped me navigate the simple things nobody tells you how to do as a 19-year-old in a new country, like getting a health card.”
A unique mentorship program: SPARK
Fast forward to today, Samiha is a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto and a participant of SPARK. “Seeing the impact mentorship had on my master’s education, I knew it would be important to find strong mentors throughout my medical school experience as well,” says Samiha. “I was connected to Dr. Jill Tinmouth, who introduced me to SPARK.”
The program, which launched in the Fall of 2021, provides a highly supported experience for University of Toronto Black and Indigenous medical students to explore research. It prioritizes student experience and mentorship, providing each student with career and community mentors in addition to their research supervisor.
“The program leads, Drs. Jill Tinmouth, Mireille Norris and Nick Daneman often say, ‘Be yourself. We trust you.’ It’s very unique to this program,” says Samiha. “SPARK allows you a safe space to be honest about who you are and where you come from.”
Samiha explains another unique aspect of the program is its approach to matching students with supervisors. During the application process, the mentor provides a statement of interest and students rank their preferred projects based on their goals and preferences.
“SPARK is really a pioneer in their approach built on mutual respect and collaboration — they trust the student to choose the project and the mentor.”
Samiha is currently working with research supervisor Dr. Rob Fowler, senior scientist and Chief of the Tory Trauma Program.
“Dr. Fowler has been extremely welcoming, providing me time to get to know the environment and enabling me to choose a research question I’m extremely passionate about,” says Samiha. “He has helped me overcome many of the insecurities I didn’t realize I had, allowing me to feel supported and consider opportunities even beyond medicine.”
In addition to the research experience and mentorship she expects to gain, Samiha says the experience is already giving her confidence and strength that will enhance her learning in the classroom and the clinic.
“I’ve had so many doubts in my journey and the mentors around me have really motivated me to keep going.”
For other students, Samiha shares this advice, “It’s okay to ask for help. It’s part of the process. There’s a lot you can learn from a great mentor.”