Halifax Chronicle Herald: Halifax researchers team up with students to tackle health care, environment projects

A national organization is pairing international students with Halifax researchers this summer in an effort to bolster the economy and form global connections.

Every year, the not-for-profit organization Mitacs brings in 565 students representing a global alphabet of countries — from Australia, Brazil, China and beyond.

It’s an all-expenses paid, 12-week work-cation made possible by their Globalink internship program.

Nineteen of these students are in Halifax this summer, working on research projects with Dalhousie University professors in areas such as health care, environment and technology.

Dalhousie professor Dr. Patrick McGrath was in search of a bright mind to lead the research for a web-based parenting program aimed at families with developmentally delayed children.

Lisandra Oliveira, a 24-year-old student from Brazil, was chosen as McGrath’s key to pushing his project forward.

This partnership between Dalhousie University and Mitacs began in 2009. A professor pitches a project every spring, and Mitacs then screens undergraduate applicants from around the world for a suitable research partner.

Once selected, the student then gets to decide what project is the right fit for them.

Mitacs refers to it as a “match-making” process that looks to benefit both the student and the Canadian economy.

“We are getting to bring top-notch undergrad students to work at our universities, collaborate with our researchers and see the quality of the education in hopes they come here,” said Brennan Gillis, director of business development for Nova Scotia.

According to McGrath, Mitacs students are some of the “best and the brightest” the world has to offer.

He says Oliveira quickly proved that she had the knowledge and skills necessary to head up the research component of his project. “This is quite unusual for an undergraduate student.”

Children’s health has been a passion of hers ever since her first year at Universidade Federal da Bahia.

Fast forward a couple years, and Oliveira is single-handedly scanning more than 6,700 pieces of research on neuro-developmental disorders such as Down syndrome or on a host of mental health issues.

McGrath is a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology, pediatrics and psychiatry.

Speaking from experience, he says these families are generally not well served because there are few specialists who have training in both neuro-developmental and mental health problems.

His solution is a phone — and web-based coaching system that would help parents better understand and manage their child’s problems.

He’s one of the founders of Strongest Families, a not-for-profit corporation that uses evidence-based research to design programs that support children and youth from the ages of three to 17.

“These parents are overwhelmed with so much to do,” said McGrath. “It’s very difficult for them to find time to travel to a centre.”

This program will work with a family’s busy schedules by fielding calls from their Strongest Families institute in Lower Sackville.

Once Oliveira is done with the research component, the program will be subject to randomized trials in the fall.

That time is quickly approaching, which means Oliveira and her fellow interns will soon be on flights home.

For Oliveira, her time in Canada has meant learning from the best and exploring East Coast trails by bicycle.

“(Mitacs) offers the opportunity to see, first-hand, all Canada has to offer in terms of research and innovation,” Oliveira said last Thursday.

She now wants to take this knowledge and apply it in Brazil, with the goal of creating a similar program. In the meantime, she will continue to work with McGrath from abroad, while connecting him with professors at her university.

McGrath says he likely wouldn’t have been able to complete this part of the project without Oliveira.

“The issues around children like this are universal,” McGrath said. “We knew that, but she really brings it home to us.”

By: Amanda Panacci