U of A medical students make an impression on international organization with personalized mentoring program

New chapter of Association of Women Surgeons wins international chapter of the year award.

Shirley Wilfong-Pritchard - 29 August 2022

U of A chapter of AWS

Thanks to a handful of dedicated medical students, and a group of committed mentors, the Association of Women Surgeons’ (AWS) University of Alberta chapter has topped 50 other medical school chapters to win the international chapter of the year award for 2021. AWS is a not-for-profit educational and professional organization whose mission is to inspire, encourage, and enable women surgeons to realize their professional and personal goals. It was founded in 1981 and has chapters in over 40 countries.

Co-founder and co-vice president Sherry Mahmood; along with Sarah Almas, president; Emma Bedard, co-vice president; and Steffane McLennan, junior lead, have created an impressive AWS chapter in only one year, fostering a supportive community for women and intersectional trainees interested in pursuing surgery. They’ve already recruited more than 90 new student members and roughly 30 resident/staff mentors for the chapter’s unique one-to-one mentorship program.

Most mentorship programs try to match a student with a resident or staff mentor based on a field of interest, such as plastic or orthopedic surgery. But the U of A chapter goes beyond that. “We took it one step further, asking questions about identity and other aspects that were important to the individuals applying. We did the same with the mentors, to see if we could match based on those other aspects of lived experience to create more fruitful relationships that go beyond just a surgical interest,” says Mahmood.

Mahmood explains that in addition to being female, people can have intersectional components to their identity, such as being racialized, Indigenous, queer, or from a low socioeconomic status or rural background. Recognizing these factors is part of the chapter’s matching process, setting their mentorship program apart from most.

In 2018, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) reported that only 29 per cent of surgeons in the country were women. While Mahmood believes the U of A has a supportive surgical community, she says, "If you look at the objective data of mistreatment for individuals identifying as women in surgery, including harrasment and discrimination, those rates are much higher than their male counterparts, and continue to be one of the deterrents to pursuing surgery. And as a student or trainee, it can be especially difficult." This is where belonging to the AWS can help.

“Being a racialized woman puts me in a unique position, pursuing surgery. That comes with both obvious and unspoken challenges. But I feel supported in navigating that, and one of the main reasons is because of mentorship,” adds Mahmood.

As an organizer of the mentoring program, Mahmood did not participate, choosing to give that opportunity to an applying student instead. “I’ve been really lucky and grateful to have excellent mentors throughout my career,” she says. “I’ve gained a lot from women surgeons and residents who have mentored me and continue to do so. That’s why I wanted to establish a program like this, to benefit other students. Because as a first-year, mentorship can make a really big difference in choosing to pursue a surgical career.”

The chapter has been limited in holding in-person events during the pandemic. But at the national AWS conference last spring, they presented a virtual talk on navigating the field of plastic surgery as a woman surgeon. And this fall they are planning to hold a mixer — their first in-person event — for mentors, mentees and incoming students.

In the future, Mahmood hopes that the AWS chapter being internationally recognized will help to garner even more support from the Department of Surgery and Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry so the program can grow and flourish.