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Q&A with Anna: 
Advice to an early medical education researcher

Anna is passionate about her work, her team, and about guiding others to success in this field of work. 

  • Can you describe your path to the field of medical education?
    I certainly didn’t intend to end up in medical education, and I wasn’t even aware the field existed when I started out over two decades ago. I started out as an elementary school teacher, and through a series of coincidences and opportunities I ended up deciding to purse advanced studies in education. I had the opportunity to go work at the medical school as a research assistant. Once there I became fascinated with the culture of medicine, and medical education specifically. It wasn’t a plan; it was a collection of opportunities. For someone with an education background, medicine and medical education were really fascinating places to work in. I always tell people that medical education is a culture of doers, of people who make things happen. I have a Bachelor’s degree, a Masters degree and a Doctorate in Education, and have taught quite literally across the continuum of education, from five-year-old children to people at the very end of their career. But it wasn’t until I came to Medical Education that I actually got to see some really novel approaches to curriculum and pedagogy in action. I had read, and studied, about problem based learning, for example, during my teacher training, but we didn’t actually see or do it. In medical education, people were actually doing these things, using these interesting tools that are state of the art. I became so interested in PBL in particular, and how people were doing it, so I did a PhD on PBL specifically.
  • What do you enjoy most about doing research in this field?
    Because of my work, I’ve been able to gain access to a world that I would not have otherwise had access to. It’s a real honour, actually, to be able to enter into clinical spaces and educational spaces, to see firsthand things that a lot of people don’t get to experience and to be part of that world. I really like digging into the everyday things that we do in medical education in a lot of detail, and to learn how these things happen, and ask questions about why we do things the way we do. I like to examine the taken for granted practices, to peel those layers back, and to experience just how complex medical education is. I am fascinated by how many different people, with so many different backgrounds, are involved in the field. When you picture medical education—we’ve seen it in TV shows and movies—we see a professor at the front of the lecture hall with a skeleton… something like that. But when you get to witness what actually happens, you realize medical education is so much more than that.
  • What are you most proud of from your career so far?
    One of the things I am proudest of is a paper our team published recently about some work we’ve been doing about cadaver-based pedagogy. I find I get caught up in the busyness of my everyday work, all of the meetings and admin tasks and planning, those sorts of things. But, that was a paper that I wrote when I was feeling overwhelmed with those types of tasks. I just stopped for a couple of days, made some space, and reflected on what I love most about my job. And, love to write freely, when I have dedicated time to do it. That paper was something that I gave myself some space to do. I didn’t plan it, but it just happened and was a very satisfying thing to write. I feel like it was a paper that captured the really special feel of a project that was interesting and complicated--and the complexity came through. And since then, I learned that pieces of this article were read out loud at the Human Body donation program memorial service for donors this year, to thank the families of donors. That felt really good. I am also very proud that I have had consistent, uninterrupted Tri Council funding to support our research since 2011, in an era where that funding is being constantly cut back and increasingly competitive. I feel good that our team has been able to maintain that record, and that makes me feel good about my skills as a grant writer. Strangely enough, I really love writing grants. Medical education is a bit of an orphan field in a way, whether it fits within the health sciences, or within social sciences, or education, it’s hard to place it. I feel that one of my strengths is that I am able to tell a good story about why something is important.
  • What kind of researchers do you think the field needs? And why?
    It’s such an interesting and diverse field. The range of people involved is fascinating. I think that is a real strength of the field, you know, that we bring together with all kinds of different disciplinary backgrounds, and they are able to weave it all together to produce a really interesting picture of what medical education is, or could be. I’ve always felt like qualitative approaches and more critically oriented approaches are well respected in medical education, contrary to what people might initially guess. I’ve never felt that people didn’t value the work we do as ethnographers, as qualitative researchers, which is really nice. I think there is a lot of room for, and a real spirit of, collaboration in the field. It’s not unusual for people with diverse backgrounds and skillsets to come together on a project. And really look at some of the critical questions from different angles and perspectives. There used to be a critique of med ed that it wasn’t theoretically grounded, but I have to say, we are doing really great work in general right now.
  • What is your advice to new medical education researchers?
    It’s an international community, but it is really small. A lot of us have professional relationships, and also social relationships, with people all over the world. I remember when I was new to this field, reading papers by superstars, and feeling intimidated. One of the things I have learned over the years is that people are open to having conversations—the person whose name you’ve read in a paper, that you are afraid to reach out to, is more than likely happy to meet with you and to offer genuine guidance, and maybe even friendship! I’ve found that really valuable myself. There really is an interesting sense of collegiality and closeness in this research community. Maybe it relates back to the fact that it is an orphan discipline. There is not a big community to get lost in. So many of us know each other, and are able to connect people to others who might give good advice. Don’t hesitate to reach out, and seek mentorship from unexpected places outside your own institution.
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