Nova Scotia

Turning volunteers into researchers: How thinking small might lead to big change

Armed with a tiny budget, two dozen volunteers have just been trained as researchers. They're tasked with finding ways to help vulnerable groups in Nova Scotia who are largely overlooked by traditional academic work.
Rodney Small pitches his team's plan to investigate recidivism among Nova Scotia youth as part of a MicroResearch project. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

In the basement of a Halifax medical building, Dr. Noni MacDonald becomes emotional.

She's speaking to two dozen people. They're a cross-section of society. Not just doctors, but police officers, artists — even a marine scientist.

"This matters," she tells her audience.

MacDonald is one of the leaders of MicroResearch International.

Variety of skills and passions

The organization brings together people with a variety of skills and a shared passion. They take a two-week course on becoming researchers and then spend up to two years investigating a grassroots issue.

Instead of throwing money at a problem to fix it, they're on the hunt for answers from the people directly affected by an issue.

MacDonald, an IWK pediatrician, has spent years running the program in Eastern Africa. "We've had projects that have changed government policy in some of these countries that were little tiny $2,000 projects," she said.

Now, she's using the model at home.

"These are being done by people in the community who actually have burning community health questions that they want to answer that I, as an academic, might not even think of," she said.

Dr. Noni MacDonald, who works at the IWK and Dalhousie University, is one of the leaders of the MicroResearch project. She says the vast majority of participants end up doing research after their initial work is complete. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

On this day, MacDonald listens to presentations from two newly trained groups.

One plans to investigate the issue of recidivism among Nova Scotia youth. The other wants to look at the challenges people with disabilities face when trying to access recreation in Halifax Regional Municipality.

Each group is tasked with completing a full research proposal. The group then will be given just $3,000 dollars to conduct its work.

Push for change

Once the research is done, the group is expected to take its results to policy-makers and push for change.

"This is not about having a dusty report on a shelf," said MacDonald. "It's about really finding answers."

The difference, said MacDonald, is that the work is community driven. "You don't have to have a PhD to do this," she said.

In the room, it's clear that MacDonald's passion has inspired the volunteers who are newly minted researchers.

Halifax Regional Police Sgt. Kim Robinson is a part of the team that will investigate recreation options in the city.

According to initial research, one in five people in Nova Scotia has a disability. That's one of the highest rates in the country. Half of those with disabilities are overweight or obese.

If the group can come up with ways to improve access to recreation, that could help people improve their health, which could help the province's health-care system. 

"As a mother myself of an adult child with disabilities, I have a special passion for this particular project," Robinson said.

"I'm really looking forward to identifying what the barriers are, so we can hopefully put forward some recommendations."

A new MicroResearch team talks about how it will connect with young Nova Scotians who have had repeated interactions with the justice system. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

MicroResearch largely depends on word of mouth to find participants.

That's how Rodney Small got involved. Small was accused and eventually acquitted of assaulting a police officer when he was just 15.

Now, he wants to reach out to young people in Nova Scotia to hear their interactions with the justice system. His hope is to find ways to lower recidivism rates.

"That's the voice that we need to be able to support in order to make sure that they're heard," he said. "When you're passionate about something you don't think about how long it takes or the level of commitment because you're all in."

"We're seeing a disproportionate representation of youth who are black and Indigenous in the correctional system," said Sgt. Robyn Atwell, who is also in Small's group.

Unconventional approach

"Recidivism is down for white boys, white males, and it's up for black males. We're wondering what services are they accessing that the other group is maybe not accessing."

Halifax Regional Police Sgt. Robyn Atwell says her work on MicroResearch is making her consider going back to school. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

What's different, they say, is their unconventional approach. Small will use his connections to the community to help find participants.

Another member of their group is an art therapist. The group plans to use some of her techniques during interviews to help build a comfort level.

After just two weeks of learning about research, Atwell said this could reshape her career path and she's considering going to school for a master's degree to dive into the issue further.

MacDonald, meanwhile, is now on the hunt for her next group of trainees with ideas to help vulnerable populations.

"These are their champions that are going to try to do something about their problems."


Carolyn Ray


Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at


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