Whenever Maya Biderman finds herself stuck deciding what to devote her time to, she returns to one of her mother’s favourite metaphors.
“My mom used to talk about this idea that over the course of your life you accumulate a village, bringing people into your village, and it’s this village that supports and raises you,” says the fourth-year Kinesiology major from Toronto.
Given she was involved in sports in high school, one of the first places Maya looked to when expanding her community at Dal was athletics. She joined the Dalhousie Rowing Club, despite having never participated in the sport before, and rose in the ranks to join the varsity level team and become co-president of the group last year.
But Maya has been equally driven to make valuable new connections off the water. In third year, she joined the Indigenous Health Interest Group (IHIG) — a society that brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in health-related programs at Dal together to raise awareness of Indigenous health inequities.
She says her experience in the group, first as secretary and then as co-president this year, has reshaped her outlook in the classroom, lab and beyond by giving her a new understanding of some of the many barriers facing Indigenous peoples in the health system across Canada.
Creating a “living” resource
As one of IHIG’s non-Indigenous members, Maya sees herself as an ally in the quest to improve the health of Indigenous peoples and reduce Indigenous health inequities through education, empowerment, advocacy and research.
“Everything is changing within our lifetime, and as much as we think that the residential school system or discrimination against Indigenous people is in the past, it really isn’t,” says Maya, noting that the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996 — her birth year.
One of the educational projects Maya has had a hand in developing through IHIG is a presentation that addresses the health and history of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Designed as a kind of “living document,” the presentation has evolved and changed over the past couple of years as Indigenous health students, members of IHIG and other Indigenous voices on campus have contributed to it.
The result: an extensive history that volunteers can draw upon and tailor to specific classes or groups in guest lectures.
“We know from research that’s been done that one of the reasons Indigenous health content is lacking in our programs here at Dal is because people don’t feel like they have the knowledge or background to be able to do that or don’t feel that they are the right voice to be sharing that information,” says Maya.
Maya says the initiative has helped fill in some of those gaps across the university, and to provide valuable information for potential students, too. She recently delivered a version of the presentation to a group of Indigenous high school students interested in health professions at Dal, while others have taken it on the road to schools around the Maritimes.
A collaborative spirit
It’s one of the many collaborative efforts that earned IHIG an Impact Award this year for Most Impactful General or Special Interest Society. Maya has also had a hand in IHIG research initiatives, including the creation of a mental health resource guide for Halifax that includes alternative and complementary treatments and in a scan of medical school admissions policies and support programs for Indigenous peoples.
It’s that same sort of collaborative spirit Maya plans to bring to her master’s research next year, which will look at the need to create a bioethical framework that empowers Indigenous populations to play an active role in the development of research projects, specifically around issues such as bio banking (the collection of biological specimens that can help with health prevention in larger populations).
She’ll be working on the project alongside supervisor Amy Bombay, a Nursing and Psychiatry professor who she calls “one of the most incredible mentors in my life,” and with the financial support of a prestigious Killam Scholarship.
She’ll also bring to her graduate work an extensive research background. In addition to the IHIG projects, she has just finished up her honours research improving health outcomes for childhood cancer survivors and has also been working in the stroke rehabilitation lab at Dalplex — all with an eye on eventually going to medical school.
Taking a look back at the community she’s built during her time at Dal, Maya sees a common thread.
“I guess I always try to bring people and influences into my life that I think are going to shape me into the kind of person I want to be, which is someone who betters the lives of people that I come into contact with.”
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