BMSc grad combines science and sports to change the narrative on equity

Jessica Brown received her Bachelor of Medical Sciences (BMSc) degree during spring convocation. (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications)

By Keri Ferguson, special to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry Communications

Remnants of red duct tape still stick to the backstop at Western’s Westminster ball diamond where former Mustangs softball player Jessica Brown “marked the spot” two summers ago during pitching training.

“Knowing it’s still there warms my heart,” said Brown, reflecting on time spent alone on the diamond, while juggling coaching the Lucan-Ilderton girls' softball team, studying for her medical college entrance test and, along with the rest of the world, navigating the waves of COVID-19.

She was also working in Professor Peter Chidiac‘s lab in Physiology and Pharmacology at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, as a recipient of an undergraduate research internship (USRI) award.

“That was a tough summer,” said Brown, who received her Bachelor of Medical Science degree during Schulich Medicine’s convocation on Tuesday. “I’d go for a run in the morning, come home and study before walking to the lab in the afternoon. Then, I’d head to the diamond with a bucket of balls, and I would just pitch to the backstop. I’d get home around nine, eat dinner, analyze my data, and do it all again the next day.”

Her discipline paid off. She shared her findings on “point substitutions in g protein-coupled ” in a poster presentation by the end of the summer and continued her research in her third year. This fall, Brown begins the MD Program at Schulich Medicine, thankful for the friends and opportunities that stretched and challenged her during her undergraduate education.

“The people I’ve met through the different experiences I’ve pushed myself to pursue have shaped me to become a more confident, strong, independent woman going out into the STEM field as an athlete trying to change the narrative.” – Jessica Brown, BMSc graduate

Part of the solution

Playing varsity softball was key in bringing Brown to Western, along with a prestigious national scholarship from the Faculty of Science and entrance into Scholar’s Electives, a program offering unique educational experiences for high-achieving students.

“I liked the idea of being brought into this small cohort of only 50 to 60 students and living on the same floor in first year,” Brown said. “I got to experience additional courses like philosophy and opportunities including undergraduate research and a capstone community-engaged learning project in final year. Looking back on all four years, many of my closest friends are still from that Scholar’s Electives floor.”

She played softball for two seasons, before joining the women’s novice rowing team in her third year. She went in with “zero experience,” but through characteristic grit and determination, she secured the title of “most improved athlete” and an invitation to a Team Canada recruitment session.

Throughout her undergraduate experience she followed a mantra she first heard in a high school social justice class: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re just part of the problem.”

“I’ve taken that with me in everything I do,” Brown said. “I feel if I have the power to do something, I should do it.”

The maxim has guided her to empower young girls through coaching softball, teaching fitness classes to disabled adults and volunteering as a visitor with the Victorian Order of Nurses. She also applied it to her extracurricular activities on campus, including her role with the Western Women in STEM club.

When she noticed disparities and gaps at the club’s executive level, Brown advocated for more diverse representation. She founded the position of vice-president community inclusion and led equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training for the internal team, as well as other student clubs across campus.

“To my understanding, we were the only club that did our own EDI training and provided that training to other clubs,” Brown said. “We also created a resource book for marginalized communities to access mental health, financial, and student support services. We presented high school workshops for Grade 11 and 12 girls to help empower them and let them know about opportunities in the STEM fields.”

Enacting change in the community

In her final year, Brown was successful in her application for a Black Leadership University Experience (BLUE), becoming an equity strategy intern at United Way Elgin Middlesex.

“I saw this as a great segue into the next chapter of my life and decided to make this opportunity a priority, along with my health, fitness and achieving good grades,” she said.

Throughout her internship, Brown suggested best EDI practices for internal and external communications and worked with the community impact team to find local organizations eligible to apply for the federal Community Services Recovery Fund.

She identified several community groups to recruit to apply for grants, attracting a record number of applicants. Her diligent efforts did not go unrecognized by her leaders at the United Way.

After completing her five-week BLUE internship, she was kept on as a summer student, where she continues to apply her skills and passion for EDI.

“Jessica has been a tremendous asset to our team and organization,” said Kelly Ziegner, president and CEO, United Way Elgin Middlesex. “Her expertise and lived experience have helped inform and transform our equity strategies, especially outreach and community development with racialized and diverse populations. We’ve learned that a more active, intentional relationship-building approach is required to build trust with populations who’ve not traditionally been United Way partners. That approach is working, with United Way forging new relationships thanks to Jessica’s insights.”

This fall, Brown is looking to apply and broaden her EDI lens at Schulich Medicine, with a goal to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology.

“There’s a lot of stigma and misconceptions surrounding women’s health,” she said. “Many marginalized individuals don’t seek health care because they mistrust the system or feel uncomfortable with healthcare professionals­­­. I want to help change that narrative by giving others a voice when they might not speak. I want everyone to feel comfortable accessing help, regardless of their gender identity or the colour of their skin.

“There’s still so much work to be done, but I am excited at the prospect of making real change.”