Dr. Rob Olson (left) and Curtis Leclerc, the first Northern Medical Program student to embark on a combined MD/PhD
For UBC medical student Curtis Leclerc, growing up in the small northern Manitoba community of The Pas – more than 500km northwest of Winnipeg – fueled an early interest in rural healthcare and a deep desire to make a difference.
“Growing up in The Pas, I witnessed the disparities between rural and urban settings, which helped fuel my desire to want to make a difference in underserved areas,” says Leclerc, now entering his second year of medical school at UBC’s Northern Medical Program (NMP) based at UNBC in Prince George.
This fall, Leclerc will move one step further to his goal by becoming the first NMP student to pursue a combined MD/PhD degree, a unique seven-year program in the Faculty of Medicine that allows students to combine their medical school experience with intensive scientific training.
Being able to carry out his MD undergraduate and PhD studies together in the north was a key motivator for Leclerc to pursue the combined program.
“It was really important for me to stay in northern B.C. and do research up here so that I can directly contribute to improving access and outcomes in rural and remote communities,” he says.
Throughout his time in the program, Leclerc will complete his MD, while pursuing his PhD in interdisciplinary oncology and cancer care, training under the supervision of Dr. Rob Olson, an NMP professor, radiation oncologist and research lead at BC Cancer – Prince George.
Under the mentorship of Dr. Olson, Leclerc will help investigate the outcomes of patients receiving a form of high-precision cancer therapy and use biomarkers to predict outcomes after therapy. The work is part of an international trial on Stereotactic Ablative Radiotherapy or SABR-COMET-3 being led by Dr. Olson.
“It was really important for me to stay in northern B.C. and do research up here so that I can directly contribute to improving access and outcomes in rural and remote communities.”
Together, the two hope their work will improve healthcare access and treatment outcomes in rural and remote communities, as well as inspire more medical students to pursue research in Northern B.C.
For Dr. Olson, who is the first supervisor of an MD/PhD student from Northern B.C., the opportunity to supervise and mentor Leclerc represents an exciting development and offers new hope for the future of medical research in the North.
“When the UBC NMP first started at UNBC, the emphasis was on training excellent clinical doctors,” recalls Dr. Olson, who is also the division head of UBC’s Radiation Oncology and Developmental Radiotherapeutics and an affiliate UNBC faculty member. “Now we’re also training academic physicians who can lead research as soon as they graduate. The possibility that this will grow Northern academic clinical work in the North is exciting.”
In the years ahead, Leclerc looks forward to becoming a physician who balances direct patient care with ongoing research initiatives dedicated to health service improvement.
“When you combine both, you’re building a bridge and bringing in perspectives from each side, seeing where the discrepancies are and then pursuing the research to help in further developing and advancing care,” he says.