Meet the UHN scientist advocating for accessible STEM learning

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“We can guarantee future scientists if we broaden the communities accessing this type of education,” says education scientist, Dr. Nicole Woods

After completing her PhD in Cognitive Psychology, Dr. Nicole Woods began her career at Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN) as an education scientist. Her work as a member at The Institute for Education Research (TIER), takes concepts and principles from cognitive psychology and applies them to advancing education, largely in medicine. “What we’re trying to do is take principles about human memory and decision making, for example, and use that information to optimize training for health care professionals.” An advocate for broadening accessibility to STEM education and basic sciences, she is inspired to build a generation of future scientists prepared for the ever-changing landscape of health care.

We spoke with Dr. Woods to discuss the details of her innovative research at TIER, what she believes is missing from our current education system, as well as what parents and their kids can expect from the upcoming TL Insider event on April 23: Are You Smarter Than Your 5th Grader?

What inspired your pursuit of scientific education?

Upon starting my undergraduate studies, I had no idea that the career path of an education scientist was a possibility for me. I’ve always found scientific cognition to be very interesting and was drawn to the idea of taking things that are often overlooked and taken for granted, and truly unpacking the complexity behind them—things like our memory and how we read the world around us. When I stumbled upon the work of Professor Geoffrey Norman at McMaster University, the opportunity of using education research to advance medicine became a reality. He was studying the cognitive psychology of medical education—a pairing that inspired me profoundly.

Is there a case study that has surprised you?

I’d say work that looks at unconscious bias in medical diagnosis. Some of the early work that I was exposed to unpacked how a simple diagnostic decision is made and the influence of things that might seem unimportant; like the occupation of a patient. Even attributes that might seem reminiscent of another patient might result in a physician to be biased in the direction of making a similar diagnosis. What I always found compelling was how this unconscious bias can go completely unaddressed.

Can you speak to the importance of access to STEM learning in early education?

The value in science for society is to have a diversity of perspectives. So, it’s important that a broad spectrum of students and future professionals are not only exposed to science as a career, but develop their own pathway to science. Access to STEM learning that includes traditional sciences but also social sciences allows kids to form these pathways—something that isn’t widely available right now outside a very small and privileged group. I would consider STEM learning and accessibility a building block in defining the future of scientific discovery. It’s going to be a new group of scientists that bring a new way of thinking and new philosophy to the field. The only way we can guarantee those future scientists is if we start now to help broaden the communities accessing this type of education.

What is an example of your current research at TIER?

Alongside my colleague Dr. Maria Mylopoulos, I focus on expert development learning and cognition. Particularly, the role of integrating different forms of complex knowledge in clinical reasoning in order to help physicians and other health professionals make diagnostic decisions. A big part of our early work was on understanding how to better integrate basic sciences into the education and training of clinical sciences.

Our definition of basic science has been far too limited. As we look at the changing health care landscape, we realize that in addition to biology, chemistry and anatomy, we might need more forms of science like sociology and psychology that can very much help physicians understand the human condition. What we’re looking to do is broaden the definition of what we consider basic science in order to better prepare and optimize the outcomes of future health care professionals, including those in a clinical setting. It’s also about opening up many different health professions to students from a variety of backgrounds and providing further education when they arrive. It goes back to that diversification of perspectives and prioritizing accessibility over gatekeeping.

Can you share any details on the upcoming TIER event with Toronto Life Insider?

Yes, I’m really excited about it! I am a member of the UHN Impact Collective and we’ve partnered with TL Insider for a special event called Are You Smarter Than Your 5th Grader, on April 23. Again, it all boils down to bringing science to that next generation. The event will include some trivia for parents and kids as well as interactive experiments for everyone to explore STEM learning together. Plus, every ticket fee is donated to UHN, which helps fund so much important health care research and education. I’ll be hosting the event alongside Dr. Jennifer Campos from UHN and Hodan Mohamud, Youth Outreach Coordinator for the KITE Young Innovators Program.