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Jordan Miller and Mulugeta Chala

Mentorship opportunity builds international partnership

Jordan Miller never imagined all the ways that he and his research program would benefit from working with graduate students in the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, a multi-faceted project that includes bringing faculty members from the University of Gondar in Ethiopia to study at the graduate level at Queen’s.

“I’ve learned as much from my students as they have from me, I’m sure,” says Dr. Miller, who currently works with two PhD students through the program and will welcome a third student in September. “Working with them has really opened my eyes to new avenues for research and they have enriched my life and research program in many ways.”

An assistant professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy and associate director of the Physical Therapy Program at Queen’s, Dr. Miller became involved in the Scholars Program when the Ethiopian researchers – including Mulugeta Chala, who had helped bring the Scholars Program to fruition – approached him about working together. Their shared research interests into reducing pain-related disability and pain management made them a good match.

“These students are energetic and passionate, hardworking and dedicated individuals, and they bring a different perspective to every discussion,” says Dr. Miller. “They ask questions that wouldn’t hit the radar of someone living in North America and working in our health-care system.”

With Dr. Miller’s help, Mr. Chala – already an established physiotherapist and educator at the University of Gondar – is studying the lived experience of Ethiopians with low back pain and how health-care providers can better understand patients and their experience, and provide treatment primarily through self-management strategies. The end goal is to design health-care programs specifically for the Ethiopian context.

“Jordan is an amazing person and helpful supervisor who has always been easy to approach and work with,” says Mr. Chala. “He does not push you, but he will always ask questions that help you move forward. I am really happy with where I am at – he has really helped with designing the project and sticking to a workable timeline.”

In fall 2019, Dr. Miller had the opportunity to spend several weeks at the University of Gondar to understand more fully the health-care system in Ethiopia and the context in which his students lived and worked. While there, he met with other program participants and faculty members, and contributed to curriculum development at Gondar.

“It was my first time in Africa, and it was clear that we have so much to learn from them and the way they do things,” he says. “I was really struck by how every day, we took lunch breaks together, and enjoyed coffee experiences, engaging in meaningful conversations much of the time. It has shifted how I approach my work in Canada, and one of the highlights has definitely been getting to know my students on a personal level.”

Dr. Miller sees that through his work with the Ethiopian students, he is building a hub of researchers with cross-cultural expertise in musculoskeletal conditions and pain. He explains that because this field has not been fully developed in Ethiopia, there is the opportunity to help Ethiopian clinicians and researchers avoid some of the mistakes that have been made in North America, such as reliance on imaging and medication for people with musculoskeletal conditions like back pain. The focus there, Dr. Miller says, can be on developing active self-management strategies before trying other management methods. He envisions that the research they are conducting will help to re-shape pain education for physiotherapists in both Canada and Ethiopia.

“There is the possibility to move in multiple directions, and the work we are doing together has the potential to have many lasting effects, both in Ethiopia and in North America,” he says.

The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is a 10-year, $24-million partnership that brought Queen’s and the University of Gondar together to support the growth of rehabilitation therapy at the Ethiopian university. The partnership, now in its third year, includes:

  • Scholarships for 450 undergraduate scholars, including those with disabilities and from areas of conflict, to study at Gondar,
  • 60 faculty members from the University of Gondar to study at the graduate level at Queen’s
  • A Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) certificate program,
  • An internationally recognized occupational therapy curriculum at the University of Gondar - the first Occupational Therapy program in Ethiopia, and
  • Funding for eight Collaborative Research Projects between University of Gondar faculty and Queen’s faculty to support knowledge translation for inclusive education for young people with disabilities in Ethiopia and/or CBR practice in Ethiopia.

The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is currently recruiting supervisors for its Fall 2021 incoming cohort. Faculty supervisors may be from any field that would permit a PhD dissertation related to disability in Ethiopia. Currently, Mastercard Foundation fellows are studying in Engineering, Kinesiology and Health Studies, Law, Nursing, and Rehabilitation Sciences at Queen’s. For more information about how to become a supervisor of a Mastercard Foundation Fellow, email Heather Aldersey at For more information on the Mastercard Foundation Scholars program visit the website.