Once a Mitacsian, always a Mitacsian
By Sambhavi Chandrashekar
On a cold January day in 2010, I was casually glancing through an email in my University of Toronto student account. It was about the Mitacs Elevate postdoctoral fellowship and began like this: “MITACS Elevate is a new pilot program designed to ensure that PhD holders, among the most highly skilled individuals in Canada, are retained and equipped for future careers.”
I sat up when I reached the part describing their Industrial Fellowship Program option, which targeted “PhD holders undertaking research with their academic supervisor in collaboration with an Ontario-based industry partner.” My business veins throbbed: what an awesome way to bridge academia and industry!
When I had started out on a PhD program at the age of 50, I had been advised that my passion for learning wouldn’t have much economic value. But with this email, my heart jumped: “Here is a chance to prove them wrong!” With six months left until my PhD defense, I quickly applied for the fellowship. By the end of the year, I had graduated with a PhD and joined the maiden cohort of Elevate postdoctoral fellows. I worked with an industry partner who is blind, on a project to develop a mobile-based navigation device for blind pedestrians. The fellowship was my first social entrepreneurial experience that marked a symbiosis between the two apparent silos of academia and industry.
Like every firstborn, our cohort was pampered by Mitacs. Financial support, ample networking events, entrepreneurship courses at the MaRS, Step training workshops — we were made to feel we had unlimited power to change the world. I wanted to expand the social entrepreneurial venture that I had started during my PhD; however, I had a job in the academia waiting for me, and, within a couple of months of completing the fellowship, I began teaching and supervising research in OCAD University’s Master of Design program in Inclusive Design. The years that followed were totally rewarding and enjoyable, going by the 2016 Award for Teaching Excellence with which I was honoured. But the passion for bridging academia and industry remained dominant in my spirit.
One way I could nurture that spirit was by going all out to promote Mitacs at the university. Between 2013 and 2016, I was instrumental in 15 students from my program taking on Mitacs-funded projects, and I was Principal Investigator for more than half of them. Nine students went on two Accelerate projects with Bridgepoint Health and Sickkids Hospital, three took on Accelerate projects in the commercial sector, and three went to China and India on Globalink projects. In keeping with my own passion for industry-academic collaborations, a number of these projects were about applying the students’ graduate research to business needs.
Recently, Mitacs invited me to join a Q&A panel that was taking place at a training session for a current Elevate cohort. I was most delighted to meet two other “firstborn” Elevate fellows as my co-panelists. Prior to the event, we breathlessly caught up on our life after Mitacs and discovered that among us, two remained in academia, while our remaining colleague pursued a career in industry. But running across our three stories was the simple truth that we all had a strongly placed foot in both worlds.
I brought this truth to my answer to a panel question asked by one of the postdocs: “What should I do at the end of my Mitacs Elevate fellowship? Enter academia or industry?” I merely said, “It doesn’t really matter. As a Mitacsian, you always belong to both worlds. And true Mitacsians have a way of bridging the two in totally creative and innovative ways.” That’s the spirit of Mitacs, and it makes good economic sense.
Sambhavi Chandrashekar is an Adjunct Professor at OCAD University in Toronto, Ontario. She specializes in research, consultancy, and education on accessibility and inclusion through digital technologies. For more information on Sambhavi’s work, visit her website.