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(L-R) Photos of Catharine Bowman, Ruth Legese, Hannah Rahim, Haley Vecchiarelli and Linhui Yu. // Photos courtesy of the President's Award winners.

Chapters & conclusions: 2020 UCalgary President’s Award winners share stories and celebrate successes

By Hanan Hammad, July 15 2020 —

Initially established in 2008, the University of Calgary President’s Award is a nomination-based award that honours both undergraduate and graduate students for their academic success and strong community involvement. Typically awarded during convocation, this year’s recipients were awarded virtually. Nevertheless, the award remains prestigious as only five nominees were honoured this year. This year’s recipients are women in STEM-related programs — three Bachelor of Health Sciences graduates, a PhD in Neuroscience, and a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering. What they share in their success is a desire to spark creativity, kindness and a hint of curiosity wherever they go and in whatever they do. 

Ruth Legese:

Upon recognizing the need for more diverse programs for Black students, Black immigrants and refugees, Ruth Legese, a Bachelor of Health Sciences graduate, decided to take the initiative to address the barriers that people of colour face in post-secondary programs. Legese explained that there are not enough networking or support programs that address the unique needs and experiences of the Black community causing many, including herself, to feel isolated. She decided to tackle these barriers by initiating the Ethiopian and Eritrean Students’ Association and coordinating peer-tutoring and mentorship programs for Black students through the African-Caribbean Students’ Association. Legese believes that her passion and drive to limit these barriers through her support programs may have led to her nomination for the UCalgary President’s Award. 

Her advice is to “master how to express yourself professionally and eloquently. If you are able to present your feelings, experiences and story in a manner that can resonate with a variety of audiences, it is such a bridge to understanding that can take you far in life.” 

She hopes that being a recipient of this award will inspire not just the Black community, but also other visible minority groups, refugees and vulnerable populations to believe that their hard work will pay off.

In the fall, Legese will begin her MD journey at the University of Alberta. Although she’s always had a goal to pursue a career in medicine, currently her passion lies in Global Health and the establishment towards health equity for Black, Indigenous and people of colour. After a long life, Ruth wants to be remembered by her compassionate nature and tenacious will to resolve the need for equity and inclusivity within minority groups in the health sector. 

“By no means am I trying to be a superhero… but [I want to be remembered for the fact] that I cared about vulnerable populations and did try to help them and improve their health outcomes in some way.” 

Shaped by her own experiences as both a refugee and Black woman, Ruth hopes to one day be able to improve accessibility to quality healthcare in East Africa, as well as for Indigenous and refugee groups in Canada.

Catharine Bowman:

After her mother’s diagnosis of lymphedema when she was eight years old, Catharine Bowman, 2020 Bachelor of Health Sciences graduate, was determined to make a change. At the age of 14, Catharine began her research journey at the University of Calgary under the supervision of Dr. Pierre-Yves von der Weid, one of the few lymphatic research experts in Canada. Bowman’s execution of this goal was through her work in research, awareness campaigns, work with UCalgary’s Scholars Academy, and as Vice-President of the Alberta Lymphedema Association. Further to this, Catharine is named in Forbes’ 30 under 30: Healthcare 2020 and Avenue Calgary’s Top 40 under 40. Catharine attributes much of her success and involvement in the UCalgary community to the support she has received from mentors, professors, family and friends. Her contributions to the UCalgary and broader Calgary community have allowed her to meet the criteria for this award, through which she hopes to share her story and further spread awareness for lymphedema. 

“I hope that by sharing my journey through the President’s Award, I’m able to share a part of myself that deeply believes students and young people themselves are not just the future, rather they are the present; the gamechangers of today.” 

The lasting effects of her journey have taught Bowman to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” a mindset that has allowed her to experience the most self-growth and seize new opportunities. Her biggest piece of advice to other youth and young adults is “to not be discouraged by your age, level of training, or the stage of your degree; rather, take the opportunity to seek out others who see you for your values, potential, and drive to make a difference. By finding mentors and other individuals whose values and passions align with yours, yet challenge you in the same regard; we can create communities where growth can occur both at a personal and group level. Limiting your experiences and not reaching out for help will limit your capacity for growth.”

Bowman hopes to maintain being a lifelong learner, innovator and supporter to others. She would like to be remembered by her core values, the concepts, ideas and beliefs that guide her everyday actions: compassion, creativity, curiosity and integrity. Through her desire to improve the lives of 10 million North American lymphedema patients, Catharine aims to relentlessly make a change in both lymphedema and UCalgary communities.    

Catharine has begun the MD program at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine this month. She plans to continue her research pursuits and diversify her understanding of human health through clinical collaborations. She envisions herself becoming a clinical practitioner and researcher in vascular and chronic disease. She hopes to change “the face of lymphedema on a societal scale,” so it can become recognized within a clinical setting, and within day-to-day conversation.

Hannah Rahim:

With a strong passion for health and research, Hannah Rahim, Bachelor of Health Sciences graduate, began her community involvement at UCalgary through STEM Fellowship. She established the UCalgary branch of STEM Fellowship, a national charity aimed at creating mentorship and STEM-related research opportunities for youth across Canada. Today, she is the Chief Executive Officer of the national organization, allowing her to incorporate her biomedical background with managing a non-profit association comprising over 325 volunteers. Rahim’s involvement with STEM Fellowship also sparked her interest in teaching and education, which she pursued during her time as an undergraduate student as an English tutor with Students for Literacy and Co-Director of Academics and Training with the UCalgary Sustainable Development Goals Alliance. Further to this, Rahim is a published undergraduate researcher, volunteer with the MS Society’s legal advocacy program and a member of the Calgary Hub of the World Economic Forum Global Shapers Community. She believes her strong involvement with STEM Fellowship and the diversification of her experiences may have led to her candidacy for this award.  

Beginning her undergraduate journey in biomedical sciences, Rahim diversified her experiences into public health and health policy while conducting research with Dr. Juliet Guichon. This piqued her interest in interdisciplinary work; specifically, in the intersection between health, business, and law. Her biggest piece of advice to future students is “to keep your options open and to seize opportunities in different fields to find your passion.” Rahim attributes part of her success to the diversity of extracurricular opportunities offered to her at UCalgary and is grateful for the opportunity to share her story through this award. She hopes to demonstrate that success can be found through the merging of different disciplines that seem unrelated on a surface level, but can profoundly affect each other. 

Rahim aspires to develop skills beyond research and academia such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and strong communication in real-world situations. When asked what she would like to be remembered by, Rahim said her passion for making a difference. “I aspire to be remembered for creatively bridging different disciplines to create positive change and benefit the community around me.” 

Presently, Rahim is interning with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, where she is conducting two research studies relating to the Universal Periodic Review. Starting in the fall, Rahim will be working for the Boston Consulting Group. She hopes to continue to grow her business development skills, partake in health innovation projects, enhance her interdisciplinary knowledge and remain a problem-solver.  

Haley Vecchiarelli:

Stemmed by a passion for research, Haley Vecchiarelli, PhD in Neuroscience, entered the UCalgary community ready to collaborate and author 15 published peer-reviewed articles, while working on another four from her PhD. Beginning her academic journey at New York’s Barnard College, Haley moved to UCalgary to begin her graduate studies, where she completed both her masters and PhD. Vecchiarelli has presented her work nationally and internationally, is a Vanier Scholar and Killam Predoctoral Laureate, board director for the International Cannabinoid Research Society, and co-chair of the Gordon Research Seminar on Cannabinoids. Further to this, Haley has volunteered with the Calgary Youth Science Fair, Brain Bee, Hotchkiss Brain Institute’s Summer Student Symposium, gotten involved with the Graduate Student Association, and mentored undergraduate students in the lab. 

“I’m lucky to have been able to work with an array of people who have kept me wanting to give back to the community,” she said.

Vecchiarelli further claims that her work with the Graduate Student Association may have primarily influenced her nomination for this award. 

Before beginning graduate studies, Haley worked in a lab for two years.

“I knew I was interested in research but wanted to gain experience to know for sure,” she said.

 Knowing her career goals revolve around research and academia, she had to publish research papers throughout graduate school. She suggests that you should take the time to figure out what you need to be successful in your desired career goal, and to then work hard towards completing those prerequisites. 

Her biggest piece of advice is “to follow your passion and not stay in something that will make you profoundly unhappy.” 

She further recommends that you should find hobbies or activities that will bring you joy and relieve stress. She claims that her volunteer work provided her the opportunity to take a break from the rush of graduate studies, while also being able to give back to the community. 

When asked how she’d like to be remembered, Vecchiarelli states through her character and perseverance that she would “like to be known as someone who is fiercely compassionate, that I didn’t back down on my beliefs. Hopefully by doing some good [through community service] and provided some knowledge to the world [through research]; that I have made a positive difference.” 

Her graduate research focused on understanding how stress and inflammatory diseases affect the nervous system. She’s currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Victoria and recipient of a CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research) Fellowship Award, where she will be focusing on research full-time. She’s hoping to become a professor, where she can practice both her passions: teaching and conducting research. Vecchiarelli hopes to continue to practice her teaching philosophy, to be inclusive and empathetic, as both a lifelong learner and educator. 

Linhui Yu:

Growing up with both parents being enthusiastic researchers, it’s no surprise that Linhui Yu, PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering, would pursue a career in academics. Upon completing her undergraduate degree in China, she decided to come to Canada for graduate school because she had the opportunity to complete a thesis-based masters, and later a PhD,  under the supervision of Dr. Kartikeya Murari. Not only an avid researcher, Yu was actively involved with the community as the president of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Graduate Students Association, a member of the Calgary Optics and Photonics Student Society, an outreach lead for STEM outreach on optics and photonics, and a workshop facilitator and a part of the education committee for SPIE (International Society of Optics and Photonics). She attributes her strong community involvement with her passion for engineering and her strong desire to help others. 

The beginning of her graduate journey in Canada was difficult; she found it challenging to network and initially participate in activities outside of academics. However, she credits the support she has received by her supervisor, mentors and peers for encouraging her and thus allowing her to find her passion outside academia. From this experience, she can summarize two pieces of advice: Firstly, to have a growth mindset and secondly, find mentors. 

“To have a growth mindset is to say ‘I can do anything as long as I put the time and effort.’ And this is something I have to continuously remind myself of,” she said. “And secondly, to find mentors doesn’t necessarily mean someone older or more experienced, it can be a peer, simply someone to check in with you and continuously push you to better yourself.” 

Yu’s research is interdisciplinary, intertwining biomedical engineering with instrumentation to create optoelectronic technology that can be utilized to quantify vascular brain activity for further analysis of the brain’s blood flow when the body is in a diseased state. Today, she is a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital where she’s continuing research in this field; biomedical imaging. Yu aspires to become a professor or biomedical researcher in a hospital to pursue a problem-solving, research-based career. As she continues to embark on her academic journey, she hopes to be remembered for her kindness, resilience, and happy aura that she shares with others.


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