SGS announces 15 inaugural Connaught PhDs for Public Impact Fellows

A new fellowship program developed by the School of Graduate Studies (SGS), in partnership with the Connaught Fund, wants to help doctoral students think about the public impact of their work and bring their research, scholarship, and/or creative practice to an audience beyond academia.

Every year, the Connaught PhDs for Public Impact Fellowship Program will provide $12,500 in funding as well as signature programming, mentorship, and public engagement opportunities to 15 PhD students to help develop their portfolios as civically-engaged intellectuals. The program aims to reframe graduate education by centring research impact and also give graduate students the skills to pursue diverse career trajectories.

Top row, from left: Wen Yin (Elaine) Cheng, Roxana Escobar Nanez, Maggie MacDonald, Madison Giles, Sneha Mandhan, and Joshua Barker (Dean)
Bottom row, from left: Erin Willson, Vina Goghari (Vice-Dean), Peter Serles, Tenzin Butsang, Jaime Grimm, Anam Shahil Feroz, Q. Jane Zhao

“When graduate students connect their research to the public good and learn to articulate its public impact, it enriches their professional and personal experience while in graduate school, as well as the quality and social relevance of their research,” says Professor Vina Goghari, SGS’s Vice-Dean, Research and Program Innovation, who spearheaded the development of the program.

“We want to encourage graduate students from all disciplines to create meaningful outputs, think about the real-world impacts of their work, and also give them the tools to communicate their ideas to a generalist audience. We want them to view themselves primarily as public scholars.”

From September 2022 to August 2023, the Connaught Fellows will participate in several mentorship and training opportunities, including a public scholarship workshop on creating and sharing impactful scholarship, a monthly fellows’ meeting, and networking events. They will also take part in at least two forms of public communication that align with their project (e.g., developing a Twitter presence, writing an op-ed, hosting a podcast, giving a public lecture), and present their work in an annual showcase event.

The inaugural cohort of 15 Fellows was officially announced on Wednesday, Sep 21. The group includes five PhD students from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and seven from the Faculty of Arts & Science. With research topics ranging from gender-based violence in professional sport to the possibilities of nanoscale 3D printing, the students represent the breadth and diversity of graduate scholarship at U of T.

Speaking to students, faculty, staff, and well wishers gathered at Massey College for the launch, Dr. Leah Cowen, the University’s Vice-President, Research and Innovation, and Strategic Initiatives and Chair of the Connaught Fund Committee, described the program as “timely and innovative.” “By focusing on the public good,” she continued, “U of T’s world-class research not only benefits the broader Canadian public, but it also makes our own work as researchers richer and more purposeful.”  

While the program defines public impact broadly as “an inquiry that makes meaningful contributions to our local and global communities,” the term can have many interpretations.

Roxana Escobar Nanez, a 2022-23 Connaught Fellow and 5th year PhD candidate in Human Geography, defines a public scholar as “someone who engages with empathy, responsibility, and compassion with their research and research participants in the interest of challenging traditional ways of scholarship.” Escobar Nanez’s research looks at how Afro-Peruvian women have contributed to the cultural identity of Lima through dance, music, and performance. Through her work, she is hoping to reimagine the way research on Afro-Peruvian communities is framed and communicated to the public.

For Maggie MacDonald, a PhD candidate at U of T’s Faculty of Information, public impact scholarship offers an opportunity to shape evidence-informed policy on a misunderstood subject – pornography.

“I’m looking forward to sharing my research in novel ways and using unexpected channels to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise think about porn beyond the sensationalized headlines,” says MacDonald.

“My hope is that clear, compelling, and evidence-based research outputs will contribute to the sea change already underway: one that recognizes sex work as work and uplifts marginalized workers through policy.”

The fellowship is open to research-stream PhD students from all disciplines, and applicants may propose projects related to social and cultural innovation; reconciliation and social inclusion; global scholarship; public policy; technological innovation; or interdisciplinary work.

Prof. Goghari hopes the program will help shape the next generation of public intellectuals. “Graduate students at U of T are an inspiration to us all through their passion and commitment to making a difference,” she shares. “We need to partner with them to remain socially responsive.”

Read about our 15 inaugural fellows and their projects on the Connaught Public Impact Fellows website.

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