The annual summer UHN COMBIEL program has been in operation since 2010. In 2019, we hit a high of 84 applicants for 22 positions (Figure 1). UHN COMBIEL has never advertised outside of the University of Toronto. For the year 2020, we had to scale down because of COVID-19 and have taken 11 local medical students (from 39 applicants) who can work remotely, one surgical resident, and three oncology clinical fellows. The program has weekly formal lectures on how to perform research, as well as weekly hands-on workshops, where we discuss both research methodology and how it applies to the trainees’ specific research projects. Individual weekly hour-long project updates also occur. In addition, there are separate hour-long formal presentations of research proposals, results, and works-in-progress. Towards the end of the summer, the summer students will start presenting their research as a way to consolidate their newly acquired research skills, and to practice their oral presentation skills. The 2020 presentation schedule is shown in Figure 2. Thus, large and small group, interactive, didactic, and Socratic learning approaches are all utilized to accommodate different types of learning styles.
Innovation in Summer Research Training
Over the course of 6-12 weeks in the summer (length is dependent on the trainee program), there is limited time to complete research projects. With the exception of 2020, due to COVID-19, in every other year, UHN COMBIEL has focused on every individual trainee to ensure that each experiences multiple aspects of clinical research. Most projects have focused on clinical and health services research because of this limited time frame. For trainees to apply their research skills in a single summer, we cannot easily provide projects that require specialty skill training (such as working with cell lines or mice), though we supplement summer trainees with discussion and presentations from our longitudinal trainees so that our summer trainees can develop and hone their critical thinking skills and develop parallel thinking as they apply their clinical research skills into the translational and basic science setting.
Further, we generally have summer trainees work on two projects: (a) one project is patient- and data-collection-focused, where trainees develop an understanding of how data are acquired in clinical and health services research, along with the issues of precision, accuracy, missing values, bias and reproducibility. It is this project that will not be available for the summer 2020 program because students are only allowed to work remotely from home; (b) a second project is more data-analytic focused, where trainees develop an understanding of how data are abstracted from various sources, including the electronic patient chart, and how these data are then analyzed and interpreted. UHN COMBIEL recognizes that it is nearly impossible to have patient- and data-focused research experiences and data analysis and interpretation to occur over one summer within the same project; hence the focus is to provide two projects, at different stages of completion so that each student has experience with all the main aspects of research. Providing two separate projects is a reasonable method to also guard against research project failure due to logistical or other unexpected issues (i.e. COVID-19), as there will always be a second research project. All summer trainees work in teams of 2-4 individuals, with many trainees having complementary clinical and research backgrounds and experience. The success of these innovations can be measured in multiple metrics, from plucking individual success stories (Figure 2), to global metrics, and to detailed analyses of the research output of individual trainees.