Social Accountability: Scholarships strengthen support for promising, diverse students

By Emily Leighton, MA'13

For Arine Pawakian, patience, perseverance and a new scholarship made all the difference in her pursuit of graduate training at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

“It was hard for someone like me, coming from outside of Canada, there were so many obstacles,” she said. “Being here is a huge accomplishment, it’s a dream come true.”

Arine PawakianPawakian is the inaugural recipient of the Graduate Opportunity Scholarship established by the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology.

The goal of the Scholarship is to attract promising and diverse students to the discipline, helping improve student access for under-represented and equity-deserving groups – a goal in the School’s five-year strategic plan

Originally from Lebanon, Pawakian spent her childhood in Toronto. She returned to her home country to complete high school and pursue an undergraduate degree in biochemistry at Lebanese International University, graduating in 2020.

With her sights set on pursuing graduate training in Canada, and at Western University specifically, she started applications for master’s programs – but the COVID-19 pandemic quickly disrupted those plans, creating logistical and financial hurdles.

“I felt every door was closing to me,” she said. “But the team in Physiology and Pharmacology was so supportive and encouraged me to apply to this scholarship.”

Pawakian arrived in London in the late fall to transition to the campus and lab environment, and she formally started her master’s program in January.

Working with supervisor Peter Stathopulos, PhD, she is studying the molecular mechanisms driving calcium signaling processes in health and disease, focusing on the mitochondrial calcium uniporter (MCU) – a protein that mediates calcium uptake and plays a role in aerobic metabolism.  

Calling her experience so far “extraordinary,” Pawakian is grateful for the community of support at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

“It’s been an amazing opportunity so far,” she said. “I hope my story can be an inspiration for students who are facing similar challenges in pursuing their education.”

The new, donor-funded Indigenous Medical Continuing Scholarship at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry is also making an impact for students at the School. Awarded annually to Indigenous students entering the first year of the Doctor of Medicine program, the Scholarship provides $7,500 per year for four years of study.

William ChukraWilliam Chukra is one of two inaugural recipients this year. “I’m so thankful to receive this scholarship, and the impact it will have on other Indigenous students in the future,” he said. “With support like this, I hope more Indigenous students will consider medicine.”

Born in Sioux Lookout and raised in Thunder Bay, Chukra is a member of the Lac Seul First Nation. He spent summers in the Indigenous community surrounded by family and says his grandparents, who taught him about Indigenous ways of healing, inspired him to pursue medicine.

“My maternal grandmother is part of the Bear Clan, taking the role of healer, and she’s taught me a lot about what it means to be a healer and to care for one another,” he said. “I want to bring these same values to my practice as a physician.”

Chukra completed his undergraduate degree at Western, with a major in chemistry and a specialization in psychology. As a first-year medical student, he is enjoying a new approach to learning and getting to know the diverse aspects of medicine.

“It’s a bit like jumping into cold water, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I’m learning every day and making great connections with my classmates,” he said. “We have a lot of support for one another and are creating an environment where we can all learn from one another.”

As he navigates a new professional journey, he also finds strength in his Indigenous identity.   

“I’m in medical school because of who I am as an Indigenous person,” he said. “When I think of my career, I want to work with Indigenous communities, regardless of where I am in Canada or what type of medicine I’m practising – I want to give back and support others in achieving their dreams.”