Close-Up with Sarah Topa, IMS Thesis and Examination Officer
Author: Annette Ye
For most Institute of Medical Science (IMS) students, you probably won’t meet Sarah Topa until the end of your degree—but Sarah has been there since the beginning (hint: she plans Student Orientation). Sarah is the most recent friendly face to join the IMS administration family, and is the current Thesis and Examination Officer for the IMS. I sat down with Sarah to learn about her role at the IMS, her background, and everything in between.
Let’s start with some basics!
ST: Sure. I was born in Toronto, and grew up in Mississauga, Ontario. When I was 17, I went on a plane for the first time and spent March Break in Venezuela to volunteer at an orphanage. After this, I caught the travel bug and went off to the west coast, where I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia (UBC). That week of volunteering really changed my life path; I went on to study in a collaborative arts program in Religion and Literature, with a minor in Spanish at UBC. After graduating, I moved to Bogota, Columbia for six months where I brushed up on my Spanish while volunteering at an orphanage for special needs kids, and also worked with a provincial non-governmental organization.
Sounds like you’ve had many experiences working for the charity sector. Where have you worked prior to IMS, and what attracted you to this position?
ST: I was working at the Anti-Racism & Cultural Diversity Office at the University of Toronto. Prior to that, I have a lot of experience in the non-profit sector, working abroad for a couple of think tanks and areas related to international development and human rights. Last year, I was in Nicaragua for six months working on a government-funded placement in a women’s rights agency. I really enjoy working with students, and even worked as a Residence Advisor while attending UBC, so it was a natural transition for me to work at the IMS. I love getting to meet with students, and helping them problem solve.
Wow, you’ve been able to travel lots!
ST: For sure. I lived in the UK while completing my master’s degree in human rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and stayed a bit afterwards for work and travel. I’ve toured through most of Europe and Scandinavia, and also backpacked through South America for a whole summer! I also have been back to Venezuela lots to revisit the orphanage.
Other than your international volunteering, what do you enjoy doing outside of work?
ST: I think it’s a little obvious by now, but I really enjoy travelling. I also enjoy doing yoga, and own a one-year old dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
Let’s talk about your role at the IMS—what does your role entail, especially beyond aspects that students may not know about?
ST: My biggest role at the IMS, akin to my position name, is to manage the exam process for students. I coordinate and process thesis submissions, master’s defense examinations, PhD final oral examinations, departmental exams, qualifying, and transfer exams. I am also here as a support role for students as they finish writing their theses and are preparing for their defense. In between, I get to participate in a lot of collaborative pieces beyond just exams; for instance, I play a major role in planning the Fall and Winter Student Orientations and the IMS Annual Scientific Day. I am also the editor for the IMS departmental newsletter, News & Views, and coordinate workshops on thesis preparation for students. Currently, I also help with the new IMS Translational Research Program for recruitment and advertising.
Wow that’s a long list! What do you enjoy most about what you do at IMS?
ST: The people I work with, that’s the most enjoyable part. It’s a really supportive and dynamic team!
Do you have any advice for current students?
ST: Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially when nearing the end of your program. Use myself and the graduate coordinators as a resource – if there is anything you’re not clear about, feel free to meet with me or chat over the phone!
Food: Mediterranean for sure. I am never without hummus in the fridge!
Vacation spot: Greece.
TV show: Parks and Recreation.
Most interesting life experience: When I was 18, I took an eight-hour canoe ride to a remote village in Papua New Guinea and volunteered at the community.
Personal inspiration? My grandfather. He worked in the school board and was a superintendent. I have always looked up to him and he’s lived a life of service to others.