As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, like many, medical students had to adapt to a mostly virtual e-learning curriculum. However, the repercussions are greater than one might initially think. Aside from learning; networking, shadowing, research opportunities, to name a few were all impacted by COVID.

Three members of the McGill chapter of the Association of Women Surgeons (AWS) team Natasha Barone, Joanne Abi-Jaoude and Veronica Youssef wanted to do something to help reduce these gaps and increase opportunities. AWS is an association that has student chapters across Canada and across the world. Each year additional schools are applying to establish their own chapter. The McGill Chapter was founded in 2015 and has since hosted many events and workshops to facilitate students’ connections with female surgical staff and residents. The three McGill medical students decided to band together to develop a “women in surgery” mentorship program and a regional conference.

“We felt it was important to launch these initiatives to help provide opportunities to students as many were feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic,” note the trio. “We were hoping to provide a centralized platform for networking and CV building despite the persistent uncertainty.”

Planning events during a pandemic

AWS has long been an integral part of McGill Medicine’s campus life with previous events having hosted esteemed McGill female surgeon staff who have shared their journey to becoming surgeons in their respective specialty. AWS has also hosted hands-on workshops with a focus on surgical techniques, such as minimally invasive laparoscopic practice and the robotic da Vinci machine.

While AWS still provided an opportunity for students to meet female staff virtually during the pandemic, the loss of in-person events hindered student opportunities to network in a meaningful capacity. However, despite the difficulties precipitated by COVID, the AWS mentorship program and the first AWS Canadian Regional Research Conference were new initiatives launched within the past year.

“The AWS mentorship program came at a critical time as female medical students were severely limited in their ability to network with residents and staff when they would have otherwise had opportunities to do so in pre-COVID times,” notes Natasha. “We recruited over fifty female staff and residents across all surgical specialties available at McGill and we were successfully able to match all students who applied to be part of the program with a mentor.”

The matching process was based upon both mentor and mentee preferences and values in order to provide a more personalized match process. “Mentorship is not one-size-fits-all and each relationship is unique,” explains Joanne. “What is unique about our program is that mentors and mentees were able to go about this partnership in a way that worked best for them.”

In addition to mentorship, research is also a prime focus at McGill. As research conferences migrated online, AWS wanted to jump in on the action and provide a platform for medical students to showcase their research. “The AWS Regional Conference was the first of its kind in Canada in which we were able to secure more than 100 registrations from across the country and see 20 unique research projects and presentations representing a wide variety of surgical specialties (such as general surgery, plastic surgery, and ophthalmology),” says Veronica. “Presentations were judged by female surgical residents and event participants were able to pose questions about the projects. It was a great sight to see for all the incredible research currently being conducted by medical students across Canada!”

From challenges come opportunities

While there were some restrictions with mentorship due to COVID (for instance, the lack of shadowing or in-person meetings), students still had much to gain from meeting their mentors virtually. Students that were interested in research were partnered with mentors willing to provide research opportunities and students were able to get one-on-one face time and to be on a first name basis with staff and residents. “We hope that in continuing this program, students will be able to broaden their network such that once they finally hit the wards, they will know some of their supervisors in advance and create long-lasting connections,” says Natasha.

Despite the many limitations of COVID, the students believe that the challenges and restrictions presented by COVID actually helped make the research conference possible. “COVID allowed us to use a virtual platform to bring students from across Canada together,” notes Joanne. “This helped eliminate hefty registration, travel, and housing fees making it an affordable conference for all registrants. We were also able to recruit two esteemed keynote speakers; Dr. Liane Feldman (McGill) and Dr. Siba Haykal (University of Toronto) to present at the conference on their current and cutting-edge research.”

The students have received great feedback for these initiatives, borne out through an exhaustive satisfaction survey. “For instance, our AWS mentorship satisfaction survey was filled out by 100% of student participants and we garnered invaluable information on the quality of their relationships with their mentors,” says Veronica. “Many students were able to meet with their mentors multiple times throughout the year and discuss a variety of topics. On the whole, we believe that the high rate of satisfaction reflects the success of the initial launch and would not have been possible without the participation of motivated student mentees and inspiring mentors who want to help a future generation of female surgeons.”

The students plan to continue holding informative and practical events (teaching how to write admission notes, suturing/knot tying) and classic panel discussions such as Sweets and Surgeons, which are organized by other members in the team. They will be continuing to build the mentorship program to have another round of matches for newly interested students and students currently enrolled in the program.

As this was the first AWS research conference held in Canada, the students will also be working with the other chapter leads across the country to make the AWS Canadian Regional Conference an annual event. “We are happy to say that the research day came out of the preparatory and planning work done by the McGill Chapter and we hope to establish this responsibility as a new tradition,” notes Natasha. “For future conferences, we are aiming to secure funding to host the event in person.”

Female Medical students at McGill University who are interested in having a surgical mentor are encouraged to apply in the upcoming mentorship match in Fall 2021. Registration forms will be disseminated through Facebook groups, Murmur.

Female surgeons (i.e., residents, fellows, or staff) interested in participating in and supporting AWS initiatives in any capacity, including serving as mentors or speakers at upcoming research conferences, can email for more information or to signal their interest.