Bringing insight to the community

Dr. Marjorie Johnson speaks in front of a large, packed university lecture hall. Everyone sits silently, absorbing each bit of information with breathless enthusiasm. The next PowerPoint slide comes up on the screen.

It reads, ‘Problems of the butt?’

This is not your typical university lecture. And the audience members are not students. It’s Western’s Mini Medical School, an annual series of lectures open to the general public.


Johnson, an Anatomy and Cell Biology professor, provides an informative, accessible – and, at times, humourous – lecture on human anatomy and the latest research taking place at the university. Her presentation covers topics ranging from tracking five different blood flow patterns through the human body’s posterior (the subject of the ‘butt’ PowerPoint) to computer-simulated endoscopies.

Johnson’s lecture is one of seven each year put on by the Mini Medical School, which take place starting in early October and lasting until mid-November.

One of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry’s most popular outreach programs, Mini Medical School highlights some of the university’s top researchers and medical professionals. The weekly series of lectures provides people in London with a taste of some of the most cutting-edge medical research without having to actually enrol in (and pay for) medical school.

Admission – $60 for seven lectures – is deliberately kept low so the series is accessible to community members, said Jennifer Parraga, associate director of communications at Schulich.

Attendance has gone up steadily over the years, reaching an all-time high of 190 registered participants in 2013. The lectures have proven to be a popular draw with Londoners curious about medicine, Parraga said.

“This is a chance for community members to meet those educators and scientists and hear first-hand about the work they are doing,” she said.

The wide variety of faculties within the school allow for an eclectic and engaging mix of presenters, Parraga said. “We try to cover off our clinical work, our work in the basic sciences, dentistry, we always try to have a representative from Robarts Research Institute as well, so people in the community get a full picture of what goes on in this school.”

In 2013, lectures included presentations from the departments of Surgery, Biochemistry and Psychiatry, as well as a lecture by Schulich Dean Dr. Michael Strong.

Jim Silcox, a former vice-dean of education at Schulich, and one of the founders of the Mini Medical School, recounted how the idea was hatched.

Slicox said the genesis began after he and his associates travelled to a conference at McGill University in Montreal in the late 1990s and heard about the smashing success of a series of public lectures there. He and his colleagues realized such a program would be hugely popular in London.

“We came back all fired up about it,” he said.

Shortly after, Western began its program in a small medical classroom on campus. Silcox and believed maybe 50 people might show up.

“It was in a room that accommodated 100 and we wondered if we could half-fill the room or not. Well, from the beginning, we filled the room,” he said. “And then we had waiting lists. In some ways, it backfired because our objective was to reach out to the community.”

Silcox believes the enduring popularity of the lectures stems from the timeliness of the information. In past years, topics covered by the lectures included discussions about avian influenza, mental-health issues for older adults as well as the epidemic of diabetes and obesity in a world of fast food.

“They’re looking for something topical. The medical school had some clear objectives with the project. One was to provide the public with good, solid information behind the headlines they were reading in the newspaper or hearing on sound bites on television news,” he said.

The lectures allow faculty members to proudly display their research to the people of London, research that can actually have a profound effect in their day-to-day lives, Silcox said.

“All faculties have a reputation of being in an ivory tower, hived off from the rest of humanity. We wanted to say to London, ‘This is what we’re doing, we want you to join with us and see what we’re doing.’”

Ronnie Goodhand has been coming to Mini Medical School since its beginning. Jokingly referring to herself as a “post-post grad,” Goodhand said she attends because of the contemporary nature of the information presented. She also likes the fact she doesn’t need a medical background to enjoy the lectures.

“The nice thing is you learn the cutting-edge of medical research,” Goodhand said. “You can go to your doctor and tell him what you heard.”