A spectacular supervisor

- October 30, 2015

Sara Kirk. (Bruce Bottomley photo)
Sara Kirk. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

Dalhousie Professor Sara Kirk has an enviable problem: too many of her students want to solve too many of the world's problems.  

Dr. Kirk certainly understands the impulse. As a Canada Research Chair, her own mandate involves figuring out ways to create healthier communities that support chronic disease prevention.

But getting graduate students to think hard about what they can realistically achieve in the time that they have as students is really important to ensuring they are successful, she says.

Since arriving at Dal eight years ago in the School of Health and Human Performance, the health promotion professor has directly supervised 16 masters students, three doctoral students and three postdoctoral fellows. Not one of those students has dropped out.

Support for students

Dalhousie created a new award for excellence in graduate supervision this year to celebrate the important mentoring and professional development work being done by professors like Dr. Kirk, who is the inaugural recipient of the prize.

Dr. Kirk keeps students on track and motivated by helping them set up the "milestones" and deadlines they need to meet as they progress on their thesis and degree.

Setting up an action plan allows Dr. Kirk to help students focus on building up some of those other professional skills and resume boosters they will need to succeed — either as scholars or in careers beyond the university — after they graduate.

"It's a tough world out there and it's getting tougher," says Dr. Kirk. "I want my students to have the best chance at competing with others."

To that end, Dr. Kirk often involves her students directly in her own research through the Applied Research Collaborations for Health (ARCH) group she runs at Dalhousie.

Students in the group get to work on interdisciplinary health research projects — evaluating food policy in Nova Scotian schools, for instance — that allow them to build relationships with real-world partners in government and industry.

"It's a collaborative endeavour to be in this position. Students are fundamentally part of my research,” she says.

Indeed, Dr. Kirk estimates that 75 per cent of her publications since arriving at Dal have involved a student in some capacity, either in a supporting role or as a first author if it's their own research.

Opening minds

While Dr. Kirk supports many of the graduate students with a stipend from her own research grant, she also encourages them to apply for provincial and national funding competitions, something they have been very successful at.

“Now that I’m at the doctoral level, she’s really supporting my growth as an independent researcher,” says Becky Spencer, a second-year PhD in health promotion who works alongside Dr. Kirk and other students in ARCH.  

Spencer says Dr. Kirk has presented her with a lot of opportunities over the years that she might otherwise not have. She helped fund a paper for publication that Spencer originally did in her doctoral coursework. She also encouraged Spencer to apply for the President’s Teaching Assistant Award this year, which she ended up winning.

Those are substantial achievements for someone who, just a few years ago, was not even sure she was cut out for grad school.

“It was not something I thought I would ever end up doing,” says Spencer, who admits she was a less-than-stellar undergraduate student and found the idea of graduate school intimidating.

It didn’t take long after meeting Dr. Kirk for Spencer to reconsider. The two crossed paths while working on a Heart Healthy Kids project during the year after Spencer completed her kinesiology degree. Spencer says Dr. Kirk encouraged her to do the Masters in Health Promotion at Dal and made it seem “do-able.” That encouragement and support continued once she entered the program.

“Rather than setting up hoops, I feel like she was just continuously moving everything out of my way — clearing a path for me to get straight there and start the PhD right after,” says Spencer.

Finding their path

Dr. Kirk recognizes that not all graduate students in Health Promotion and related disciplines want to follow in Spencer’s steps and take the scholarly route, so she makes a point of imparting critical research and professional skills that can help those who are considering a move into careers in industry or government.

"It's not just about me imparting my wisdom, if I have any, or having students go off and try to emulate me,” she says. “It's about students having the ability to develop in their own right whatever path that may be."

This article is part of a series highlighing some of the recipients of Dalhousie's university-wide teaching awards. See the full list of award winners for 2015.


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