March 7, 2019

Cumming School student group encourages undergrads to pursue research

'WolbPack' members learn how to think outside the box and acquire a world view

Beakers, test tubes and petri dishes — this is what we often picture when we think of labs at a medical school. However, for a multidisciplinary research team at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), the lab is more of an open forum, a support system and a family.

Dubbed by its members as the “WolbPack,” after their supervisor Dr. Gregor Wolbring, PhD, the group includes students from the Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation and Bachelor of Health Sciences programs. At times, students from the Faculty of Kinesiology have joined the “pack.”

Current and alumni members are pictured above; back row, from left: Farwa Naqvi, Lucy Diep, Nicole Mfoafo-M’Carthy, Valentina Villamil, Wentao Li, Bushra Abdullah, Rochelle Deloria, Sadia Ahmed, Aspen Lilywhite. Front, from left: Gregor Wolbring, Manel Djebrouni, Aryn Lisitza and Kalie Mosig

The students’ research topics vary from disability studies and occupational therapy to sport, emerging technologies and sustainability. Most members of the WolbPack are undergraduate students.

“It’s important to teach young students the skills for research,” says Wolbring, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences and member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM. “Many students want to work in the community after completing their undergraduate degree and never go to grad school, so why not give them the skills of doing research? They can continue to take those skills on to their professional careers.”

Pack members Wentao Li, left, and Manel Djebrouni with the group's Husky stuffed animal, which has become a symbol for the WolbPack.

Wentao Li, left, and Manel Djebrouni with the group's Husky stuffed animal, the Wolbpack's symbol.

Pauline Zulueta, Cumming School of Medicine

Pack members and fourth-year students, Wentao Li and Manel Djebrouni, in the Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation program, share more about the group and the importance of undergraduate research:

What is the WolbPack?

Li: We’re a conceptual lab. Our research often focuses on social issues of the future, before they even occur. We look for gaps in research and see what can be improved.

Djebrouni: We try to be predictive and theorize how certain things will impact us in the future. It’s a great learning environment where we share ideas about our research. The experienced students guide the younger students, while the younger students bring in new and fresh ideas.

What do you enjoy about the WolbPack?

Li: We go outside of defined structures and rules. We have a lot of control over our research. Having that freedom allows me to feel comfortable to research what I’m passionate about. You’re free to explore your ideas.

Djebrouni: The topics we choose often blend into our life, passions and future. It’s a sense of community where everyone is welcome and everyone has something to contribute. All our ideas are respected. But the WolbPack goes far beyond research; it provides an outlet when life becomes too stressful. The connections we create in this group are long lasting. Although many members have graduated, they are still happy to lend their support and help with whatever you need.

What is your current research project?

Djebrouni: It’s an investigation of occupational therapists and social workers as active citizens. The purpose is to explore their use of lifelong learning mechanisms to obtain the knowledge needed to contribute to discussions around the governance of emerging technologies.

Li: My last project was about the mutual re-engagement and relationship between the return-to-work and ethics discourses. I looked at whether professionals in back-to-work programs used ethics concepts and theories in their academic research to explain their approaches to supporting clients.

Why is it important for undergraduate students to do research?

Li: We want to remove the assumption that research is only done by full-time researchers. Everybody can contribute to research and everyone is capable of producing knowledge that can change the world. We also need a youth perspective, so we need undergraduate students to be able to provide their voice. We encourage them to take advantage of the many opportunities to learn and not just from the existing curriculum.

What skills have you learned from doing research as an undergraduate?

Djebrouni: You learn to think critically. You learn that nothing is black and white, that life is grey. Research gives you imagination and feeds your intelligence. You learn there’s not only one form of information, and you need to do research to get exposed to other ideas. It teaches you how to back your ideas with evidence. It teaches you how to deal with criticism and respect other people’s ideas. It has helped me grow as a person.

Li: Undergraduate research is about being open-minded and encouraging others to be open-minded. It’s about truly embracing open-mindedness with no limits.

Wolbring adds: The students learn a lot of basic research skills and tools, like how to use reference software, or planning and time management skills. However, they also learn how to think outside the box and acquire a world view. Everyone in the group comes from different backgrounds and has different ideas and skills; they learn that you get further in the game if you work together. It’s all about collaboration and belonging to something bigger.