With a doctorate in genetics and plant breeding, I had been working in India as an assistant professor and a scientist in the discipline of genetics, plant breeding and plant biotechnology for several years. I had never aspired to be a regular, full-time student again. So when I was nominated for a master’s in bioethics at the University of Toronto I was not confident about my qualifications. I was also reluctant to leave back my family for 10 months.
However, my family encouraged me to go ahead with the application. Besides getting through the application formalities, I needed a place to live in Toronto.. I applied to several university residences but Knox College called me back. I had no other option but to accept the offer from Knox residence. As it turned out, however, Knox is the nearest U of T residence to my department, the Joint Centre for Bioethics (JCB). It was, moreover, a warm, comfortable, peaceful, and quiet place of study. Knox also had weekly prayer meetings, which I always looked forward to. My cousins and a childhood friend, who live in Toronto and whom I had not seen for 11 years, also contributed to the happiness of my stay at the U of T.
Although my mind was filled with excitement about my study trip to Canada, it was also troubled by uncertainty. As a teacher I have been busy with books throughout my career but pursuing a full-time master’s programme in mid-career was, nonetheless, a challenge. And doing it so far from home, in a new environment, only added to that challenge.
I also feared how I would cope with the subject and interact with my colleagues, as I expected that most of them would have medical sciences background. But all my doubts and fears vanished the moment I stepped into the JCB for the orientation, on account of the warm welcome I received from both the staff and faculty of the centre. Thereafter, studying at the University of Toronto continued to be a memorable and a tremendously enjoyable experience.
Every year, the JCB , in conjunction with the American National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty grant, trains a few international students from developing countries. In addition, the JCB offers a collaborative programme and a clinical ethics fellowship. Formed in 1995, the JCB is a collaborating centre of the World Health Organization and works in partnership with the University of Toronto and its affiliated hospitals. With more than 160 faculty, about 20 of whom work full time in bioethics, the JCB is d the largest multi-disciplinary group of in-hospital ethicists in Canada. Its members are widely published and actively engaged in a number of locally and nationally funded ethics research projects1.
For Fogarty Fellows such as myself, , the JCB’s two-year master’s of health sciences programme is condensed into 10 months, which makes it very intensive. The programme is tightly packed with many interesting opportunities for learning. Routine classes, research ethics education meetings, ethics review of research proposals, weekly seminars, attendance at and participation in conferences and seminars were just some of the activities, the Fogarty fellows were involved in. In addition, U of T runs several useful programmes and activities for its graduates. Despite the busy schedule at the JCB, I completed a 20-credit course, “Graduate Professional Skills,” which I believe will be helpful in my future professional career.
The programme was taught theoretically but was always followed by real-life cases, with ample discussion about them. There were role plays, debates, and presentations that clarified concepts and helped students decide their own stand on various ethical issues they were studying. Course assignments were extremely well planned and demanding, encouraging students to use course study materials, recollect class discussions, read the relevant literature, and come up with their own views and ideas about cases and problems in bioethics. As a teacher, I learned innovative teaching tools and methodology. Moreover, I appreciated the attitude and professional approach of the faculty. Contrary to the conventional method of classroom teaching, where teachers usually use one-way communication and are expected to be very strict, faculty believed in two-way communication and encouraged student interaction in the class room.
I also appreciated the faculty’s accommodating students’ viewpoints in spite of differences in knowledge, age, and culture. I was reminded of how it feels to be a student and how important it is to go beyond the occasional, seemingly illogical reactions. It was good to be reminded about my student life and live it again after having been a teacher.
As I noted previously, unlike most of my classmates, who were health care professionals, my academic background is in genetics and plant breeding. It was sometimes difficult to convince people that bioethics was an integral part of my discipline. It was also a challenge to make relevant to my field the lessons from each class and the ethical issues involved. However, as a result my interaction with experienced, enthusiastic, and highly motivated faculty working in a variety of healthcare settings and with different educational backgrounds, the programme gave me a broad perspective on the role and scope of a bio-ethicist and helped me develop skills to execute that role. The educational environment at the centre helped students to clarify, refine, and develop their understanding of ethical issues – and the responsibilities of an ethicist in the society.
As for the informal time spent in Toronto, our faculty planned outings for us, such as the one at Harbourfront, where many of us had our first experience ice skating. Several faculty opened their homes for us. Commuting in Toronto was easy. Announcements, boards, maps, indicators, and signs on roads and subways made traveling very convenient in Toronto, a challenge I had been concerned about when I was planning my trip.
Food was another challenge. Back home in India, we would have Western food stuffs once in a while, for a change, but not on a regular basis. However, I always found something I could manage to eat in the university dining hall. While I missed Indian rotis and the spices, I learned to enjoy some of the Western food items too.
It was an enriching experience having colleagues from different cultural, linguistic, religious, and professional backgrounds in my classes, an experience one can never have when living in one’s own small world. Most colleagues could relate to, or at least understand, the view points of international students. Others thought our views were not reasonable, but their reactions offered the enrichment of diversity and let everyone recognize the challenge of building solidarity and networks among scientists, even societies and nations. Through the Fogarty fellowship program, the centre has successfully initiated a support network for the future. Like the field of bioethics itself, the Joint Centre for Bioethics graduate programme continues to evolve with each successive year 1.
My 10 months in Toronto ended sooner than I thought, and while I was looking forward to reuniting with my family, I was happy to have attended the course.. It had been worth it. I had many happy memories to take back with me of the centre’s friendly and supportive staff, the knowledgeable and approachable faculty, my helpful colleagues, and the warmth of the environment of the centre.
Plunging into a full-time study programme in a foreign country, in the middle of your career might seem challenging and difficult, but once the decision is made and the programme embarked upon, there is much to enjoy and cherish.
Bini Toms is an assistant professor in the Department of Biotechnology and vice-principal at T. John College in Bangalore, India.
1 Chidwick Paula, Faith Karen, Godkin Dianne and Hardingham Laurie, 2004. “Clinical Education of Ethicists: The Role of a Clinical Ethics Fellowship.” BMC Medical Ethics 2004, pp. 5:6.