A Well Cultured Brain

Last week, another excellent opportunity for competency development was presented by the GSE.

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The Mind the Gap workshop series presented a hands-on approach to learning about brain development, mental health and multiculturalism within graduate school. These concepts may seem like vastly differing topics with very little overlap. What on earth does brain development have to do with being sensitive to the cultural diversity within graduate school? I’ll explain further and you may be surprised at how closely related these two topics are.

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We were first introduced to Solange Lalonde, a Moodle education advisor, who took us through the brain architecture game. The aim of the game is to build a brain out of pipe cleaners and straws. The game is designed to demonstrate how early life experiences, genetics and environment all interact to influence brain development. The goal was to build the brain as tall as possible, however it needed to be strong enough to withstand various forms of stress. We started the game with the genetic lottery where we literally rolled dice to determine the number of pipe cleaners (brain cells) and straws (representative of the social supports) for our brain and were told to start building. We were then asked to draw life experience cards for each year of early development. Depending on the whether the experience was good, bad or tolerable would determine which materials we got to build our brains. When good experiences were drawn, we got a pipe cleaner and a straw ultimately resulting in stronger brain architecture while negative experiences would allow us to use only a pipe cleaner (which are much more unstable than they look). Tolerable stress cards were tricky as they depended on the number of previous positive or negative stresses the brain had experienced. If there were mostly positive life experiences, then we would receive the much needed straws, however if there were mainly negative life experiences, then no straws (and no support both literal and figurative) were given to us. As we began to build our brains, it became obvious that negative life experiences had a cumulative impact on brain development at an early age and had a drastic effect on the stability and resilience of our brains to stress later in life. If you are curious to learn more about the brain architecture game you may find the link below useful.

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So what does brain development have to do with mental health and multiculturalism? After playing the game, it was clear that stress has a negative impact on our brains. We need social support to help combat mental health issue and make our brains more resilient so that we can continue to develop in a positive way. International students are often most in need because they are constantly outside their comfort zones, isolated from primary support groups such as family and friends, as well as having to deal with different cultural expectations. This may have a drastic impact on the mental health and well-being of students from various backgrounds. We were asked to reflect on how our environment affects our learning and how communities could alleviate stress.

We were also asked to reflect upon our own roles within the community and how we could contribute to positive learning experiences and even offer support to help ensure graduate stress is tolerable rather than toxic. We discussed the various communities and support groups that were available to graduate students here at the University of Calgary and how these are critical for managing the inherent stress of graduate school (see the links below).

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The second session within this workshop was facilitated by Dr. Anna-Lisa Ciccocioppo and Liliana Gonzalez. During this session, we broke out into small groups to discuss cultural identity and misunderstandings that may have arisen due to varying cultural perspectives. We were then invited to discuss and comment on a case study where miscommunications and cultural expectations can result in conflict. Throughout the workshop it became increasingly obvious that empathy, avoiding assumptions, patience and a gentle approach are critical for avoiding disputes that arise from differences in cultural identity.

Graduate schools are perhaps one of the most culturally diverse places to work and learn. Here at the Cumming School of Medicine 21% of all our students are internationals, not to mention the numerous cultural backgrounds seen in Canadian citizens. The trend for growing a diverse workforce appears to be on the rise and may in fact lead to better research (see Nature link below). The ability to work in a culturally diverse setting is also predicted to be one of the top ten transferable skills needed in the workforce (See Future work skills report 2020 link). It is evident that developing competencies in cultural awareness and communication are critical for careers in both academia and industry.

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Luckily, the University of Calgary Career Services offers a wide range of tools to help improve your competencies. From tools that will help you assess your individual intercultural awareness to continuing education offerings (see links below), there are a myriad of ways to improve.  Of course attending workshops such as the one offered in the Mind the Gap series was also an excellent place to start.

Links to the Brain Architecture Game

https://dev.thebrainarchitecturegame.com/media-resources/

 

Links Mental Health and Wellness

http://www.ucalgary.ca/wellnesscentre/services/mental-health-services

http://211.ca/

http://www.ucalgary.ca/wellnesscentre/node/1121

 

Links to improve Cultural Awareness

https://conted.ucalgary.ca/search/publicCourseSearchDetails.do?method=load&courseId=34036370

https://idiinventory.com/

 

Links to Nature Article

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05326-3

 

Links to Future work skills report 2020.

http://www.iftf.org/uploads/media/SR-1382A_UPRI_future_work_skills_sm.pdf