Case Study # 4: An Overview of CIHR’s Synapse – Youth Connection Program

Synapse – CIHR Youth Connection is a mentorship program that creates opportunities for researchers to educate Canadian youth about science. Synapse encourages CIHR-funded researchers, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows to become mentors by passing on their passion for health research to young Canadians who can become their trainees. Using the Common CV Network, which allows scientists and graduate students to create curricula vitae for submission with funding applications, CIHR established a national Synapse Mentor Database option. Since its inception in October 2006, the unique database now lists over 5,500 CIHR-funded researchers who want to become mentors and train youth in various fields of science.

Developing this incredibly successful program was no simple task. CIHR conducted a thorough environmental scan and met with leading non-profit organizations in the area of youth science and engagement (including Actua and Let’s Talk Science) to brainstorm about what type of role CIHR could take in youth outreach. The Canadian youth science outreach “sector” was already well established by the time CIHR arrived on the scene, and the intention was never to compete with other organizations; instead, CIHR wanted to complement the programs that already existed. The key to the success of this program, really, was that CIHR had to accept the expertise of other organizations and use their feedback to find its own niche in the youth engagement field.

An advisory board was created to oversee the development of the program. The members of the board included three CIHR staff members, along with the head of a Youth Outreach Unit at another health organization, the CBC host of Quarks and Quirks, a science counsellor from a school board in Nova Scotia, the editor of YES Mag and KNOW (science magazines for youth), and two young grad students who launched “CRAM Science” (a website designed to let youth explore science, which is now: CurioCity). Overall, the board included an appropriate cross-section of people from different parts of the youth science outreach sector. To find these board members, CIHR used its own connections (some staff members were already familiar with the work of several board members), but also went back to the organizations that had participated in the environmental scan to seek their recommendations for appropriate board members. Everyone gladly accepted the invitation to become volunteer advisory board members.

CIHR really listened to its youth outreach advisory board. When the non-profit organizations highlighted how helpful CIHR could be in finding researchers to support their activities, the “match-making” idea was born. It was decided that, through the Common CV tool, CIHR would become the “middle man” to unite interested researchers with youth engagement organizations – and with youth themselves. Synapse mentors can now inspire students in a number of ways, including one-on-one lab training and experience, virtual connections, in-school seminars, and science fairs. Synapse, in collaboration with the non-profit organizations, helps these mentors create the next generation of Canadian health researchers through the use of accessible scientific information and hands-on training experience.

CIHR still engages the non-profit organizations as partners in a number of ways. In order to help Synapse mentors develop efficient strategies for engaging youth in health research activities, CIHR, in collaboration with Let’s Talk Science, offer Science with Impact workshops at various universities across Canada. In April 2009, CIHR sent out a request for applications that would establish partnerships with national and provincial organizations that want to build capacity in health research and youth outreach. Grants will be provided to successful applicants (organizations); each applicant must show how they can build on this capacity, engage Synapse mentors, distribute CIHR Synapse promotional materials, and offer training for under-represented Canadian students.

CIHR also continues to engage the youth engagement advisory board members (although some of the original members have moved on) to conduct a merit review of applications for CIHR’s Synapse Mentorship awards. For three consecutive years, CIHR has launched the Synapse Mentorship Awards, which recognize the efforts of outstanding science and health research mentors in three categories: a) graduate students/post-doctoral fellows, b) established individual researchers, and c) research group. Those who receive the awards have respectively acted as exceptional scientific mentors for Canadian youth – and may have motivated the next generation to consider careers in science.

The Synapse – Youth Connection Program has enjoyed tremendous success, and has even been cited in the Government of Canada’s S&T strategy as a model for getting young Canadians excited about science and technology. The success of this program, in large part, has been due to the strong partnerships CIHR developed with the non-profit organizations. These relationships have been based on trust, respect, and a mutual desire to work together to build Canadian youths’ interest in science.

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