Honorary doctor of science degree the perfect reward for a lifetime of scientific curiosity, child-health advocacy and lifesaving public-health contributions

Ruth Collins-Nakai looks back on the highlights of a full career bridging academia, pediatric care and, most recently, corporate leadership.

Sasha Roeder Mah - 22 June 2021

When Ruth Collins-Nakai, ’72 MD, ’98 MBA, found out early this spring that she would be receiving an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Alberta, she was taken by surprise. Collins-Nakai, a renowned pediatric cardiologist and public-health force to be reckoned with, had grown apart from her alma mater in recent years, her career carrying her into health-leadership roles in government and the private sector. The recognition from the U of A represents something of a homecoming for her. “It’s a wonderful surprise to be recognized for what I’ve done,” she says, “It is such an honour.”

While Collins-Nakai grew up in a medical family—both her grandfathers were physicians, as were her parents—she never intended to follow in their footsteps. She entered the U of A as a student in the medical laboratory sciences program, but after a somewhat circuitous path that involved brief flirtations with honours English and zoology, Collins-Nakai decided to apply for medical school. “And it was like coming home,” she says. “I could ask as many questions as I wanted; it was wonderful.”

Asking questions and following up on unusual opportunities have been steadfast companions throughout Collins-Nakai’s long and illustrious career, as has her steady resolve to simply “go around” whatever obstacles she’s encountered.

As a young intern in Montreal, she leapt at the chance to participate in a two-month stint in Iqaluit (then Frobisher Bay) when a resident couldn’t go. “I said, ‘Take me! Take me!’ and although they didn’t normally send interns, I got to go,” she says. Her time there was full of valuable lessons, not the least of which was the confidence-building moment when a small plane she was flying in with several patients—including two tiny infants—had to make an emergency landing in a remote area. “It was terrifying, and a huge responsibility. But thankfully, the patients believed I was a competent doctor,” she remembers with a self-deprecating laugh.

Collins-Nakai’s impact blossomed as her confidence grew. One night working in the pediatric intensive care unit, she was looking after two dying children who had been thrown from cars during collisions. “I thought, ‘If I don’t do something, I could be here interminably, looking after children like this,’” she recalls. The following day she joined the Alberta Medical Association’s Child Health Committee and threw her energies into advocating—eventually successfully—for seatbelt laws in Alberta.

Several years later, a plane trip to a Canadian Medical Association (CMA) meeting also spurred her to action that changed the world. “I was sitting in the back of the plane because it was cheaper, and that was also where all the smoke collected from the smoking section. I got off that plane and during one of the CMA sessions I made a motion, which was passed, that we recommend no smoking on planes.” Not long after, Air Canada became the first airline in the world to go smoke free.

Passion for public health

While trained as a pediatric cardiologist, Collins-Nakai has always felt drawn to public health. Along with her work with seatbelt and anti-smoking laws, this advocacy also showed up in fighting for high-quality, affordable and accessible early learning and care for children, and for the prevention of cardiovascular risk factors that begin in childhood. “Part of a physician’s obligation to society is to do what we can to leave the world better than we found it,” she says. “And, if you’re interested in people, you can’t really be involved in children’s health for long before you realize you have to be involved in policy. Public health has been very close to my heart.”

As part of her drive to advocate for policy improvements, Collins-Nakai has worked with multiple health organizations, including as president of both the Alberta and Canadian medical associations, and as the first Canadian—and first woman—to lead the American College of Cardiology, and the Inter-American Society of Cardiology. She also used her position as a faculty member—and later associate dean—in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry to push for important advancements, even from before the moment she arrived.

After completing her cardiology residency at Harvard Medical School, Collins-Nakai was ready to return to Canada, where she knew she would never be disciplined for providing care to families who could not afford to pay, as she had been in Boston. The U of A needed a pediatric cardiologist and, armed with a proposal for a brand new pediatric cardiology program, she was hired back to her alma mater. Her Heritage Pediatric Cardiology Program, with outreach clinics to Grande Prairie, High Level, Fort McMurray and Red Deer, would usher in today’s major children’s heart program at the U of A.

Lifelong learning

When Collins-Nakai embarked on a sabbatical year partway into her time at the U of A, she decided to use that time to satisfy her curiosity about research: Could she do it? Did she want to? “One of the best in the world in cardiac metabolism was Gary Lopaschuk,” she recalls. “He had a lab and was willing to take me for a sabbatical.” While she soon realized she missed patients too much to pursue research full time, her experience in that lab with Lopaschuk—combined with what she learned during an MBA years later—would serve her well years later in her post-academic career.

While working as associate dean, Collins-Nakai began pursuing an MBA part time, graduating in 1998. The understanding of the corporate world she gained during that time would eventually combine with her research skills, medical expertise, and ever-present intellectual curiosity, to take her in the unexpected direction of biomedical companies, the area where she puts most of her energies these days. “Putting together the financial aspect in terms of funding, the product development aspect, the research and clinical trials—that integration in terms of startup companies really interests me,” she says.

Navigating a man’s world

Being in medicine has felt like a tremendous privilege to Collins-Nakai. “You are allowed into people’s lives, and you’re constantly learning—you never get bored,” she says. Still, her chosen path hasn’t always been an easy one.

“When I told my mother I was going into medicine, she said, ‘There are easier things for a woman to do.’ Being a doctor is quite a juggling act for women,” says Collins-Nakai, and the sexism she has sometimes faced in her work and academic life have made that balancing act even harder at times. But it never stopped her. “I had a very supportive family, which made a huge difference,” she says, “and mostly, although I took many of those episodes personally, I just found ways to go around them and do other things.”

Hope for the future

Collins-Nakai sees hope for a better future for the younger generation of women entering medicine. “There are more women now in medicine and more in positions of authority,” she says, “where we’ve been traditionally underrepresented.” She was thrilled when Verna Yiu became dean in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, and is equally delighted to see Brenda Hemmelgarn at the helm now.

She’s also excited to see that physician training in general is moving beyond antiquated power structures and rigid approaches to pedagogy, a shift that will benefit all learners as well as the patients they eventually serve. “The entire education system for medicine is changing because of the need to teach humanity and the importance of looking after everyone’s mental health. We’re changing the dynamic between patients and physicians so physicians are the patients’ partner in health, rather than being on a pedestal.”

What would she say to someone entering the field that has brought her so many interesting challenges and so much joy? “You have to have a passion for this work. It is often hard work and you have to be prepared for that. You have to have a love and respect for people. If you have all that, and you love to ask questions, go for it!”