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Hallowed halls

MD student and Science alumnus off to Oxford as N.L.'s latest Rhodes Scholar

By Michelle Osmond

From a bachelor of science in psychology (B.Sc.’17), specializing in neuroscience, to the doctor of medicine program at Memorial, Matthew Downer’s curriculum vitae is longer than most people twice his age.

His latest achievement? He’s just been named Newfoundland and Labrador’s 2019 Rhodes Scholar.

The scholarship means the St. John’s native gets the opportunity to join other outstanding young people from around the world for full-time postgraduate study at the University of Oxford. He hopes to one day be both a clinician and researcher in the field of rehabilitation medicine and is looking forward to being a graduate student in medical sciences and diving into some new research. He leaves in early October.

Mr. Downer has already been recognized with the 2018 Memorial University Award for Outstanding Self-Directed Learning, the Captain Robert A. Bartlett Convocation Award for Science, the Colbourne Family Scholarship, among many others (not to mention three years on the Faculty of Science Dean’s List).

Medicine, student, award
Matthew Downer accepts the 2018 Memorial University Award for Outstanding Self-Directed Learning from Dr. Sean Cadigan.
Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

The second-year medical student has been involved in five peer-reviewed papers in clinical rehabilitation — with two more on the way — was a clinical research intern at American University Human Neuropsychology Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and a clinical research assistant in Dr. Michelle Ploughman’s Recovery and Performance Laboratory. He also received a Fulbright Canada Killam Fellowship for his research.

Inspired to improve lives

Mr. Downer says his family — including his sister, Bethany, the 2018 recipient of Memorial’s Horizon Award and an aspiring astronaut — has always taught him that the greatest work is what you can do for others.

“I think this is one of the reasons medicine felt like such a nice career fit for me as it allowed me to put a love of science to good use.”

He also says the culmination of his community work and research was part of his inspiration to enrol in Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine.

“I love neuroscience and I found the greatest part about working in community or in clinical research with individuals with acquired or congenital injury to the nervous system was how we could work to improve their quality of life.”

Medicine, student, Rhodes scholar, award
Matthew Downer is Memorial’s 2019 Rhodes Scholar.
Photo: Richard Blenkinsopp

Since starting his MD program, Mr. Downer has undertaken a lot of community work.

He serves on the Canadian Federation of Medical Students Opioid Task Force and founded Memorial’s Opioid Awareness and Support Team (OAST). He’s also a member of a global health interest group and travelled to Nepal recently with Memorial’s Dr. Jill Allison and the Faculty of Medicine’s Global Health Office as part of its International Summer Institute for Global Health Training program.

Passion for sport, for others

Growing up, Mr. Downer played a lot of sports, with hockey being his favourite, by far. He’s been playing since the age of four.

He played on teams all the way through school and throughout his undergraduate degree, most recently playing in Newfoundland and Labrador’s junior league.

“Working with these athletes has been one of the greatest privileges of my life.” — Matthew Downer

In 2013 his passion for the sport led him to coach the St. John’s Special Olympics floor hockey team and, later, the club’s golf team. It was this work that led him to work as a camp counsellor and eventually a wheelchair basketball coach with Easter Seals NL, an organization that provides programs for youth in the province with disabilities.

“Working with these athletes has been one of the greatest privileges of my life,” Mr. Downer said. “It’s such a wonderful environment and everyone shows so much passion for sport that it has really always been the highlight of my week. They have all taught me a lot about what is so great about sport and what it really means to be a team over the past six years.”

Making the world a better place

One of the founding aims of the Rhodes Scholarship is “to select outstanding young people, with the potential to lead, who will make an impact for good in the world in later life.”

For Mr. Downer, that vision of making the world a better place means healthier communities both at home and abroad.

“Most of my work here at the Faculty of Medicine is in the field of rehabilitation and global health on a local scale, so I think a better world involves enabling folks living with chronic disease or disability the opportunity to have the greatest quality of life possible, no matter where they call home,” he said.

“I hope to make the best of the opportunities that come my way in the U.K. and bring home with me new knowledge and research experience, as well as some unforgettable memories along the way.”

And there just might be some U.K.-based hockey in his future, as well.

“There are a few people who are trying to convince me to try to play hockey while I am in Oxford, so I may just have to bring my gear across the pond and see what happens.”

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