Aaron van der Leek, '20 M.Sc.

Aaron van der Leek (centre) advises to choose your mentors wisely for graduate studies.

Student: Aaron van der Leek

Program: M.Sc.

Convocation Date: June 12, 2020

Supervisors: Anita Kozyrskyj and Anne Hicks

What is your background before coming to this program?
I grew up in Edmonton and started swimming competitively from a young age (that’s 15+ years of competitive swimming). Most recently, I was on the University of Alberta Golden Bears Varsity Swim Team during my undergrad in biological sciences. I have also been coaching for 10+ years and I am currently the head coach of the HUMA Swim Club. Outside of athletics and academics, my hobbies include hiking/backpacking, photography and cooking!

What led you to decide to take graduate studies in the Department of Pediatrics at the U of A?
In my undergrad, I had the fortune of being connected to Anita Kozyrskyj and Yarden Yanishevsky in the Department of Pediatrics and we worked together on a review paper about tryptophan metabolism and the gut microbiome. I had such a great experience with them and enjoy coaching kids swimming so much that I decided to combine my passions and pursue graduate studies in pediatric health.

What is your thesis title and summary of your research?
An Exploration of the Associations Between Gut and Serum Immunoglobulin A in Infancy and Asthma in Childhood

In two population based cohorts, we looked at the relationships between an immune system biomarker (Immunoglobulin A) in blood and stool in infancy and development of asthma in childhood. We found that Immunoglobulin A may be an important biomarker in infancy for later childhood asthma, specifically persistent asthma.

What were some of the highlights of your experience here?
Some of my biggest highlights from the program were my interactions with other members of the Department of Pediatrics and how each and every one was so kind and generous. In particular, early on in my degree, the pediatrics graduate studies chair, Sujata Persad and graduate coordinator, Mikhaila Skehor, truly took time to help me and provide guidance on my journey through graduate school in such a personable and thoughtful way which really set the tone for the rest of my degree.

What were some of the challenges or things that were harder than you anticipated?
One of the biggest things that I had not anticipated, but was quite challenging for me throughout my graduate studies, was being proactive in asking for help. Usually I am quite independent in my learning, but I realized early on that hours of wasted time could be prevented with a proactive question or by seeking guidance from a mentor or friend.

Has your journey's "destination" changed or morphed from what you thought it would be at the beginning?
Overall, graduate studies in the Department of Pediatrics strengthened my love for academic medicine and the importance of research and advocacy for kids health. Although the destination hasn't changed substantially, I find myself increasingly aware of the importance of knowledge translation in medicine—something that was very important when coaching kids swimming—which I will aim to focus on more throughout the rest of my career.

Do you have any tips or advice for people considering applying to the department graduate program and/or new graduate students entering the program?
The biggest advice is to choose your mentors wisely. I benefited greatly from having two wonderful, caring and intelligent supervisors during my graduate studies who promoted my academic success but also my personal health and life goals as well. In sum, I think having supervisors you connect with can make or break your graduate program experience.

How has the department prepared you for the next step in your career?
Graduate school provided me with so many experiences that prepared me for my future career. It is almost impossible to name them all! In terms of personal qualities, graduate school has definitely strengthened my work ethic and accountability, but the department has also provided me with priceless connections to mentors and friends.

What will you miss about the Department of Pediatrics and your time here?
The people, hands down. Everyone I met in the department was so kind and caring and made it such a wonderful and unique experience.

Where are you headed in your education/career now?
I am entering medical school at the University of Alberta in the fall and hope to have a future career in pediatrics!