Dr. Nikki Woods champions values in science and beyond. (Photo: Ola Foto)
Dr. Nikki Woods, Director of The Institute for Education Research (TIER) at University Health Network (UHN), is spurred by curiosity. A cognitive psychologist, she’s driven by the quest to interpret the seemingly undecipherable. Above that, however, it’s honouring those who came before her – and blazing a trail for those coming after her – that galvanizes Dr. Woods.
“What motivates me is finding connections to my own community. I very much value my own upbringing and recognize the importance of all the people who helped me along the way,” says Dr. Woods, also a scientist at The Wilson Centre and an associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. “What I appreciate now are the opportunities I have to be a role model for my community, but also to do work that actively improves their lives.”
These priorities form the bedrock of her work. Dr. Woods – who was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women for 2021 by the Women’s Executive Network – is passionate about transforming healthcare education through TIER, and advancing inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA) in and out of science.
TIER appointment a milestone moment
In July 2020, Dr. Woods was named the Director of TIER, one of seven research institutes at UHN. Established in 2019, its focus is conducting research on healthcare education for the healthcare workforce. It seeks to reinvent the ways in which education is imagined and delivered to healthcare professionals by drawing on research discoveries and embedding them into programs. Her appointment was a great achievement, as it would have been for anyone, but it carried extra significance for her, as she believes Black women are rarely afforded the opportunity to assume leadership positions in science. Dr. Woods attributes this lack of representation to many reasons, the biggest of which is systemic racism.
“When we are creating opportunities for leaders, we have in our heads a picture of what a leader looks like. It doesn’t look like me. People don’t offer these opportunities to Black women because it never dawns on them that we would be suitable for it,” she says. “We don’t fit the prototype, and that’s why I think it is so important to role model the representation. We shouldn’t have restricted models of who should be in charge.”
Dr. Woods also points to social capital as a factor in the oversight of Black women for senior positions. Like many, she didn’t enter the system with a lengthy list of contacts and networks to engage for career advancement. Instead, she had to build them. “Those doors weren’t automatically blown open the way they are for other people,” she says.
Her TIER appointment is a glowing title she can add to her long list of credentials, but it has also resonated with other Black women in health care. When news spread of her role, another woman at UHN whom Dr. Woods had never met reached out via email. This person, not even remotely linked to Dr. Woods’ work, wanted to congratulate her and express her pride that a Black woman had earned the distinction. “I was blown away,” she says of the email, which she notes she’ll never forget.
Diversity a necessity in science
Not only should Black women and other oft-overlooked groups be given the opportunity to participate at the highest levels of science, but they should be included comprehensively. The discipline depends on it, Dr. Woods says.
“I don’t see how we can continue to do our work well when we’re constantly drawing on the same minds. I don’t see how that’s going to lead to anything new and innovative and exciting,” she says. “From a strict scientific advancement standpoint, it’s necessary. We have to have diverse perspectives brought into the field.”
Dr. Woods notes that careers in science and health care are attractive, but access to them isn’t equitable. “We shouldn’t have a system that deliberately excludes people from these opportunities because they’re Black women or because they’re Indigenous, for example,” she says. “These are opportunities that we should all be able to avail ourselves of, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have this job and to be in this space – I just want other people to be right here in this job and in this space with me.”
Driving IDEA forward at work
Prioritizing IDEA at work is paramount for Dr. Woods. Fortunately, and possibly because Dr. Woods is who she is, her lab has organically taken shape to include a wealth of diversity. If this serendipitous union were to dissolve, Dr. Woods says she would apply an IDEA lens to recruiting diverse perspectives.
She takes an unapologetic stance rooted in IDEA values when confronted with what she perceives to be problematic. “It’s important to meet issues of racism head-on, and I am not afraid to call out behaviours I think are inappropriate. I am not afraid to say someone else deserves a chance. I am not afraid to count the number of Black people in a room and point out that I’m the only one,” Dr. Woods says.
Dr. Woods’ research is grounded in understanding human decision-making. She seeks to uncover the processes that govern the choices and behaviours of people, specifically those in health care. With her findings in tow, she then designs curriculums to improve healthcare professionals’ training.
Supported by UHN Foundation donors, one project that is underway explores the value of basic science in medical education and whether its parameters need to be broadened. Basic science traditionally encapsulates physiology, anatomy and biochemistry, among other areas, but Dr. Woods questions if a program built on this serves every healthcare professional. How is this training benefiting learners and informing their behaviour in the field? She also asks if additional forms of science need to be introduced.
“Maybe we should be thinking about psychology, evolutionary biology and sociology as other sciences we haven’t embraced yet that can be just as useful in the health professions,” she says. “If I’m trying to teach communication and collaboration, then what do people need to know about social justice? What do they need to know about power and privilege?”
She notes, too, that the work aligns well with TIER, which aims to support research into social sciences, a domain that can be discounted in a hospital-based research system.
Another project of Dr. Woods’ is centred on advocacy for underrepresented and under recognized professions. Along with a team, Dr. Woods is collaborating with community-based organizations, such as Black Health Alliance and Urban Alliance on Race Relations, to create COVID-19 vaccine education for personal support workers (PSWs). In Ontario, racialized and immigrant women form a large portion of the PSW workforce. The program, sprung out of research and education science, is free, and the group is bringing it to frontline healthcare workers virtually. It is one initiative under an umbrella of projects Dr. Woods and the team call CAPE, or collaboration and advocacy in partnered education.
Returning to her desire to better the lives of those within her own community, Dr. Woods says, “My mom was a PSW, my sister is a PSW and my cousin is a PSW. The work on PSW education matters a lot to me. It’s a community that matters to me.”
Dr. Woods and her collaborators will work with PSWs to design the program, which will help inform PSWs of the advantages associated with vaccination.
Bringing IDEA home
Dr. Woods’ focus on IDEA extends beyond her work at UHN and into her role at home, where she swaps the title of scientist for mother. Asked how she teaches her two sons, ages 10 and 12, the value of IDEA, she shares a story. When children were first sent home from school earlier in the pandemic, Dr. Woods, ever the educator, crafted a Black history curriculum for her kids. “That’s what happens when your mom’s an education scientist,” she says with a laugh.
The boys researched historical figures, wrote essays and attempted to memorize the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program, a set of guidelines that defines the party’s ideals and the Black community’s needs, including liberation.
Not all exercises were successful – Dr. Woods is quick to admit the memory researcher couldn’t get her kids to memorize the Black Panther Party’s program – but she showed them the value of their culture, taught them to be proud of their ancestry and imparted the lesson that everyone has a unique experience. They now appreciate their own story and understand that others’ starkly different stories underpin their perspectives.
Whether it’s leading one of UHN’s research institutes, improving medical education or raising two Black boys, IDEA principles fuel Dr. Woods’ work.
“As a scientist, I value diversity. As a human, I demand it,” she says. “We all have to have opportunities.”