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Discovering his passion

2018 Award for Outstanding Self-directed Learning announced

Teaching and Learning

By Jennifer Batten

A student in Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine has been awarded the 2018 Memorial University Award for Outstanding Self-directed Learning.

The award was presented to Matthew Downer, an undergraduate MD student, at a ceremony on the St. John’s campus recently.

From left, Matthew Downer and Dr. Sean Cadigan with the 2018 Award for Outstanding Self-Directed Learning.
Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

Mr. Downer’s family and fellow students, faculty, mentors and supporters were in attendance.

Mr. Downer completed a bachelor of science degree (psychology) at Memorial in 2017. He says that focusing on interests he is passionate about guided him through his self-directed learning experience and resulted in tremendous personal, academic and professional growth.

In his first year of the science program, Mr. Downer independently explored sub-disciplines in the field of neuroscience, looking for his niche. At this time he also began volunteering for the St. John’s Special Olympics. First as an assistant coach of floor hockey and eventually as one of the youngest head coaches of both floor hockey and golf. He was also a trainer for a Special Olympian in snowshoeing who was headed to the national Winter Olympics.

“I discovered how fulfilling combining my two passions could be.” — Matthew Downer

It was through his involvement with this organization and its athletes that Mr. Downer recognized the opportunity to combine his love of sport with his interest in neuroscience and his desire to do meaningful work that would make a positive difference to the lives of others.

“I discovered how fulfilling combining my two passions could be,” Mr. Downer wrote in his award application. “By coaching sport and exercise to individuals living with disabilities and neurological conditions, I applied my knowledge from both these areas to help these athletes strive towards their goals.”

Strong communicator

At the start of year two of his program, to learn about the research process and further his knowledge of the cellular basis of neural transmission, Mr. Downer began volunteering in Dr. Christina Thorpe’s behavioral neuroscience lab.

He also contacted Dr. Michelle Ploughman in the Faculty of Medicine to express interest in her work to promote repair and recovery among people who have had a stroke or who are affected by multiple sclerosis.

By the second semester of that year, Mr. Downer had gained a coveted volunteer position in Dr. Ploughman’s Recovery and Performance Lab.

Both Dr. Ploughman and Maryanne Walsh, program co-ordinator of the Special Olympics, valued Mr. Downer’s professionalism and especially his ability to communicate and build a rapport with research subjects and athletes that was respectful, encouraging, and supportive.

MS focus

In the Recovery and Performance Lab, Mr. Downer soon began asking his own questions about the nature of multiple sclerosis and, in particular, its effect on a person’s ability to simultaneously perform a motor task and a cognitive task.

He then reviewed the literature and became familiar with existing research in the area. With the help of Dr. Ploughman and her team, he designed and conducted his own research project for which he received funding from the MS Society of Canada endMS Research and Training Network.

Mr. Downer’s research found that walking interferes with thinking among people with MS and has raised awareness of issues with tests for cognitive deficits performed while the subject is seated. He presented the results locally, nationally and internationally at the Society for Neuroscience conference San Diego, Calif., and published the results in the journal Human Movement Science.

His research will contribute significantly to the work of other researchers and clinicians as they develop more comprehensive and accurate measures of cognitive ability for people with MS.

‘Most deserving’

“What he has accomplished simultaneously in his volunteer activities, academic study, and research is most impressive and required focus, dedication, resourcefulness, and hard work,” said Dr. Sean Cadigan, associate vice-president (academic) programs, complement planning and development, during the award presentation.

“Mr. Downer is a most deserving recipient of the 2018 Memorial University Award for Outstanding Self-directed Learning.”

The Memorial University Award for Outstanding Self-directed Learning celebrates undergraduate students with the qualities and skills that enable them to manage their own learning and successfully undertake self-directed learning projects during their formal studies.

Mr. Downer’s submission essay is available online here.


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