Alumni Spotlight | Spring 2023

A Medical Researcher with a Healing Touch

Jessica Maher holding her dog in a park in the winter

Volunteering at an orthopedic fracture clinic influenced the path that Jessica Maher's life would take. She spent the summer before her first year at Lakehead at the Stevenson Memorial Hospital in Alliston, Ontario.

"It sparked my interest in medical research," says Jessica, who's been part of several significant research projects since then.

When September came, Jessica began the Honours Bachelor of Science in Applied Life Sciences program at Lakehead's Orillia campus, an hour's drive from her hometown of Tottenham.

Jessica posing with parents after her Lakehead convocation ceremony

Jessica with her parents at her Lakehead graduation in June 2022.

"I've always been fascinated by how organisms work, and life sciences is the study of biology, chemistry, and physiology as they apply to living things," she explains.

Jessica got more hands-on health-care experience at the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) in the summer of 2020 when she was employed as a COVID screener. Her relationship with the hospital deepened the following summer after winning an RVH research award to help pinpoint barriers to running COVID-19 clinical trials in community hospitals.

"Most research takes place at large hospitals," she says, "but with COVID there was a big push to do trials at smaller health centres."

In 2022, through the strength of her work, Jessica was given another RVH award—the inaugural Laura E. Crook Scholarship for Community Health Research. As the scholarship recipient, she was able to participate in a project led by Dr. Matt Orava seeking to identify links between childhood obesity rates and the neighbourhoods that youngsters live in.

"Our research pulls together data from RVH's electronic medical records, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, and census data," Jessica says. "We're still doing the data analysis, but we suspect that a child's neighbourhood strongly affects their chance of becoming obese."

They're investigating factors including family income, the presence of green spaces, good public transportation, and access to healthy food to see if they're connected to obesity rates.

Jessica standing in a park during the summer

By the time Jessica embarked on her third year in Lakehead's life sciences program, she had become very interested in the clinical aspect of medicine and began to consider a career as a medical doctor. A Global Health Fellowship with the Foundation for International Medical Relief for Children solidified her desire to put her research into practice and have a tangible effect on patients' lives.

"I virtually shadowed a general practitioner, pharmacist, and psychiatrist in Costa Rica. Seeing the disparities between Costa Rica's health care system compared to Canada's intensified my interest in community health research and its power to shift medical care to a more holistic, preventative focus."

After her fellowship, things moved quickly for Jessica. She received an early acceptance to the University of Ottawa's medical school and graduated from Lakehead this past June with a Bachelor of Science instead of her four-year life sciences degree so that she could begin her medical studies.

"I started at Ottawa in September 2022 and I'm really enjoying everything that I'm learning—in the classroom, in the community, in hospitals, and in clinics."

Although she is revelling in the world of medicine, Jessica's favourite moments often involve spending time with her dog Abby, who she adopted during the pandemic.

"Being outdoors in nature with Abby is my main stress reliever, and she loves going on walks in our neighbourhood because she gets to meet tons of dogs."

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