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‘All roads lead to MUN’

A Q&A with the 2022 Alumna of the Year

By Heidi Wicks

Dr. Lisa Barrett (B.Sc.(Hons.)’98, MD’05, PhD’09) has created a legacy of selflessness through her trailblazing work with infectious disease, thus making her an ideal choice for the 2022 Alumna of the Year.

In this Q&A with The Gazette, Dr. Barrett shares some of her fondest memories and lessons from her time at Memorial.

Heidi Wicks: Are there examples of instances during your time at Memorial that have remained with you?

Dr. Lisa Barrett: There are many things that make me think Memorial is special and different. When I was an undergraduate in biology, we were at a point when the way you train people to do biology was changing. It was a very organism-based program, and DNA and molecular was becoming super important. A group of the students got together from the biology society – at the time I was president – and we took some things to the professors and it was just incredible the way that they took a student voice around needs and wants and direction of learning, and really gave it credit and presence, and helped shape some of the ways that the faculty changed. I’ve been in many institutions that have student representation, but I was really inspired and I really always felt like it was a place where students had a real representation and voice. I was able to say, ‘If you organize yourself to be a leader, you can make an impact.’

HW: How did it become apparent that you wanted to focus on immunology?

LB: I was a high school student and I grew up in a rural cottage hospital. My mother was a nurse and then became the administrator. My dad had been an X-ray and lab technician. When you’re in a tiny town, you occasionally get pulled into the kitchen and make yourself busy while your parents were working. I had an opportunity in high school to do a co-op science program at Memorial. It was me and another student, and the person we were paired with was an immunologist, Dr. William Marshall. He taught us the scientific method in immunology. He kept us on for more work, and I became fascinated with the immune system and more about what we didn’t know than what we did know. Then I met this brand new HIV researcher, Dr. Mike Grant, who was coming to N.L. to do research, and then I never wanted to leave it. It continues to fascinate me to this day. So Memorial was part of my high school experience as well.

HW: What got you interested in serving underserved populations?

LB: One of the first times when I was in medical school and went to a correctional facility in St. John’s, I was startled by some of the issues. It was in both Toronto and Washington where I worked with underserved populations, and again in correctional facilities, where I still spend a lot of time. One of the pieces I worked on in Nova Scotia was managing COVID, and keeping it out of correctional facilities. All of that started when I was back in Newfoundland. All roads lead back to MUN! I went on to work with Tony Fauci, and he wanted to do work in correctional institutes as well.

HW: What advice do you have for current and future medical students?

LB: Everyone’s a little crispy these days (laughs). People are burned out. I’ve heard people pointing out that if you come into medicine that you shouldn’t do it unless you’re sure. That’s not my advice – medicine, for me, has always been a service. It’s such a privilege to be able to serve people. I would say, “Go for it.” And if the system doesn’t work, spend a lot of time trying to change it. It’s not going to be easy. I see it as an opportunity, not a reason to not do something. Never give up on an opportunity to serve people. Part of your job and joy will be facilitating  the change that’s needed.

The 41st annual Alumni Tribute Awards take place on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at 7 p.m. NT from Memorial University’s Core Science Facility. Viewers can see the livestream on the Office of Alumni Engagement YouTube channel.

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