UGSLA Recipient: Lilian Zhai

Undergraduate Student Leader: Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology

Lilian Zhang
Photo supplied.

Personal Statement

Many of us enter the University of Toronto, curiously, with an idealistic envision in mind – the freedom of living away from home, the excitement to learn at the birthplace of insulin, or even the opportunity to connect with Nobel laureates – but not us. We were the “pandemic generation,” stumbling to the next stage of our lives as the world is shutting down. As I clicked into my first lecture on Zoom in 2020, I questioned how I could make this experience meaningful. Looking back over the past 4 years, the individuals I encountered along this journey are the inspiration for my current leadership style, empowering me to rally collective effort to contribute to health and social causes.

In my first year of university, I noticed how online learning posed challenges to many due to the absence of support networks. To address this issue, I led recognized study groups (RSGs) to foster collaborative learning among peers. I innovated a style of coordination rooted in asking questions, which notably enhanced active learning. Thanks to the exceptional group members who were always generous with feedback, they inspired me to constantly refine my leadership style and use encouragement to establish a supportive environment for all.

Recognizing the issue of “infodemics” during the pandemic, I joined HealthxVisuals to equip individuals with discerning eyes for accurate health information. I couldn’t help but admire the leader of our group, who had the insight to establish such a creative organization at a crucial time of need. Her leadership based on innovation and social need continues to inspire me to this day.

External to the university community, I continued exploring the secrets to exceptional leadership. At the dementia unit of Baycrest Hospital, I discovered how compassion and respect for individualities are key to establishing meaningful connections with others. At Women’s College Hospital (WCH), I witnessed leadership driven by the value of bridging the gender health gap. Motivated by the commitment to support women in marginalized communities, I knew my volunteering efforts contributed to a noble cause. These experiences solidified my belief in the ability of empathetic and value-driven leadership to drive positive change.

The fruition of the insights I gained in leadership manifests in HOSA, a student organization that brings educational and healthcare-related opportunities to undergraduates to nourish aspirations in medicine. As the Co-President since 2022, I was determined to lead with innovation, values, compassion, and respect for individuality. These core concepts enabled us to nearly double our membership and engage an annual audience of over 1000 people.

Upon becoming a leader in HOSA, I reflected on the unique changes I can make beyond educating and bringing opportunities to students. Applying my background in sociology, I decided to address current societal challenges concerning healthcare. Driven by the conviction that everyone should have equal access to educational opportunities, we led negotiations with sponsors and secured funding that more than doubled our financial support. This enabled us to provide scholarships to two students to partake in the HOSA competition, winning first place internationally. I was immensely proud of their achievement and reaffirmed my commitment to dismantling the financial barriers hampering educational progress.

Furthermore, HOSA instills the value of altruism in our community. Our blood donation collaboration with Canadian Blood Services gained the support of the Student Initiative Fund, helping to relieve the issue of donor shortage. Ultimately, the goal of my leadership is to help others develop an insight into current societal challenges regarding health and motivate them to act for a social cause.

These improvements are only made possible with a diverse team. As the Co-President, I strive to create an open and inclusive environment. Did I create a space where people are willing to share different opinions, knowing they will not be judged? Did I give executives the opportunity to ask questions, to learn and grow? I learned from RSG that a continued dedication to a supportive environment encourages talents to shine, and from Baycrest that the essence of exceptional leadership lies in compassion and individuality.

This autumn, our finance director secured a $3700 grant for the Research Opportunities event, an interactive seminar that guides students to land a research position. More than 500 students expressed interest and more than 200 attended. Our events director proposed the Tie Dye 4 Change event, the only 3 out of 100 applications that received support from the Hart House Good Ideas Fund.

In this event, we called for clothing donations to charity using tie-dye as an incentive, raising awareness of socioeconomic disparity and textile waste. These accomplishments are not personal achievements, but a result of supporting talented people to give their best. It originates from the freedom of individual creativity and the collaboration that materializes it. HOSA’s team is united not through hierarchy, but through our support and understanding towards each other, our collective interest in science and healthcare, and our united effort in pursuing social justice. I am incredibly grateful for the people I encountered who inspired me to become the leader I am

Finally, mentorship and research are pivotal in shaping my undergraduate journey. First engaging in diabetes research, then cystic fibrosis, and finally lung cancer, I enjoy exploring the diverse research landscape Toronto offers and appreciate the creativity in scientific innovations. The dedication of fellow researchers to advance human health continues to inspire me to pursue academic excellence and scientific breakthroughs. As an LMP mentor over the past two years, I also came to appreciate the transformative effective mentorship can have on both parties.

Sharing my personal experience inspires mentees to fulfill their aspirations, and I always cherish their accomplishments. Little did I realize that social distancing did not hinder me from drawing inspiration from both my team members and the remarkable leadership of others. A true leader is supportive, innovative, and empathetic, yet the essence of leadership lies in the impact one has on the lives of others. My experiences in leadership will continue to inform my commitment to making a meaningful difference in the world.