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South of the border

Psychology scholar Memorial University's newest Killam Fellow

Student Life

By Kelly Foss

It’s pretty exciting times for the Downer family lately.

First Bethany Downer, a recent geography graduate, was chosen out of thousands of applicants to begin a master of space studies this fall at the International Space University in France. Now her brother, Matthew Downer, also a Faculty of Science student, has received a prestigious Killam Fellowship to spend a semester as an exchange student in the United States.

Outstanding student

The Killam Fellowships program offers a cash award of $5,000 (USD) per semester, a $500 allowance and a $800 mobility grant to undertake an educational field trip while in the host country. Funded through Fulbright Canada, the program provides opportunities for outstanding American and Canadian students to study and/or conduct research in another country.

“I’m so glad they are giving me this opportunity,” he said. “I feel quite fortunate. It’s certainly going to be the trip of a lifetime and I can’t wait to get started.”

Matthew Downer
Matthew Downer will be studying at American University in Washington, D.C., this fall.
Photo: Chris Hammond


Mr. Downer is about to begin his fourth year in the Department of Psychology, as he completes an honours in behavioural neuroscience and a minor in biochemistry. A lifelong hockey player, the St. John’s resident currently plays in the province’s junior league as a member of the Avalon Capitals and enjoys Ultimate Frisbee and golf in the summer. He’s also the head coach for the St. John’s Special Olympics floor hockey and golf teams, and coach of a wheelchair basketball team with Easter Seals.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Mr. Downer. “All of the athletes work really hard and they inspire me to do my very best every day, and put all I can into my studies. It’s also nice to be able to translate some of those experiences into studying and doing research in neuroscience. It really gives a lot of purpose to all my work.”

“All of the athletes work really hard and they inspire me to do my very best every day, and put all I can into my studies.” –Matthew Downer

In 2014 Mr. Downer was a founding member of the MUN Canadian Sport For Life group, of which he is the current president. During the past two years, Mr. Downer and Canadian Sport For Life have taught youth living with disabilities and from underprivileged backgrounds principles of physical literacy; they have also raised more than $2,000 for community sport and recreation initiatives. Mr. Downer has also received the Toronto Alumni Scholarship, awarded annually to a Newfoundland and Labrador undergraduate student who demonstrates both academic excellence and leadership qualities.

Multiple sclerosis findings

Mr. Downer has been working at the Miller Centre with Dr. Michelle Ploughman, the Canada Research Chair in Rehabilitation, Neuroplasticity and Brain Recovery and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine, for the past two years as a summer research student. Last year he was one of six Atlantic Canadians to win an endMS Summer Studentship from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, which funded a research project that was recently published.

From left are Matthew Downer and Dr. Michelle Ploughman.
From left are Matthew Downer and Dr. Michelle Ploughman.
Photo: Chris Hammond

“I looked at how walking can actually impact thinking abilities in people living with multiple sclerosis,” Mr. Downer said of the project. “An everyday example is walking and texting, it is something most people do every day and don’t even think about it. But what we found in people with MS was that their thinking performance actually decreases when they are walking.”

This summer Mr. Downer has funding from Memorial’s student summer internship program (USSIP) to work on multiple studies with Dr. Ploughman. He is currently preparing a qualitative paper looking at people with MS who are in their 80s or older to identify the qualities that make them resilient and enable them to achieve such longevity. He’s also about to begin an honours project to see if exercise can initiate brain repair in people who have had a stroke.

“Exercise and neuroscience are both passions of mine, so combining the two is really fascinating and rewarding for me.” –Matthew Downer

“It’s a really exciting project,” he said. “I’m very thankful to have been able to spend the last couple of years with Dr. Ploughman. She’s been such a great mentor to me and has really stimulated my learning in the field of neuroscience.

“It’s also nice to be able to contribute some meaningful research and findings to the fields of MS and stroke. Exercise and neuroscience are both passions of mine, so combining the two is really fascinating and rewarding for me.”

Washington bound

In November Mr. Downer will present some of his findings at the Society for Neuroscience Conference, one of the biggest scientific conferences in the world, and at the American Society for NeuroRehabilitation, both in San Diego, Calif. He’s also preparing to write the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), just before he begins his semester at American University in Washington, D.C. He’s also looking forward to translating some of his previous research and what he’ll be learning as a Killam Fellow into his future studies in the field of medicine as he continues his work in neurorehabilitation.

“The American election will also be going on while I’m in Washington, so it will certainly be an exciting time to be there.

“But I still need to find a place to live,” he added. “So, I haven’t had a lot of time to sit and reflect on everything just yet.”

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