June 14, 2022

Class of 2022: Kinesiology student takes one shot at her dream school and makes it

Researcher Melissa McElroy is on track to become a doctor in a remote Indigenous community
Melissa McElroy
Melissa McElroy's goal is to become a doctor in a remote community who Indigenous people can trust. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Getting into a medical school is tough. It’s highly competitive and often students are rejected on their first try and apply two or three times and to multiple medical schools before they are accepted. However, Melissa McElroy, BKin'22, who recently graduated with first-class honours from the University of Calgary, only applied to the one medical school she wanted to attend: The Northern Ontario School of Medicine.

Only 64 students out of 2,000 applicants are accepted, and only a handful outside of Ontario. McElroy was accepted.

“I knew it was a long shot, but I eventually want to be a doctor in a remote Indigenous community, and this medical school has a social-accountability mandate to have their interns serve in remote, rural and Indigenous communities where they often don’t have enough doctors,” says McElroy.

McElroy, who has her roots in Winnipeg and is of Métis, Saulteaux and Cree heritage, knew she wanted to be a doctor from the time she was four years old.

“Due to health complications when I was born, I often visited a pediatrician, and he would give us free samples of medicine to save us money, and he was kind to me and encouraged my dream to become a doctor, telling me I could do it, and he would joke about how he would leave me his practice someday,” says McElroy with a smile.  

Not all the medical professionals were as kind.

“We had quite low socio-economic status, and my mother is Indigenous and she was a teen when she had my older siblings she encountered prejudice when she went for medical care. It was difficult for her to seek help for my health complications,” says McElroy.  

She notes that it’s not uncommon for Indigenous people to experience judgment and prejudice as not everyone understands transgenerational trauma and the coping mechanisms such as drugs and alcohol that Indigenous people may have as a result of forced colonization.

“If seeking medical care is unpleasant for Indigenous people, it’s only natural they will avoid doctors and let health problems get worse. I want to work in a remote Indigenous community to provide the people there with access to health care, which is their right as Canadians, and be a doctor that people can trust and find acceptance with,” says McElroy.

From ballet to research

Despite health complications at birth, McElroy began studying ballet at four years old and went on to dance with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet before retiring at 17. It was this early introduction to athletics that inspired her to pursue a kinesiology degree on her road to a medical career.

During McElroy’s time in the Faculty of Kinesiology, she entered an honours program and began researching the female athlete triad, which is an interconnected metabolic injury that has three components to it  low energy availability, low-bone mineral density and menstrual dysfunction  and is relatively common in young women who participate in sport. She chose to focus on Indigenous female athletes to reduce a gap in the literature, partnering with the Indigenous Sports Council of Alberta to recruit participants.

“When I started to review the literature, compared to a similar diet in their Caucasian counterparts, Indigenous women face a higher prevalence of low-bone mineral density, regardless if they are athletes, which puts them at greater risk. They also have shockingly low vitamin D absorption, which can contribute to low bone mineral density,” says McElroy.

McElroy noted in her research that, if athletes start presenting in one element of the triad, typically they will present in the other two areas. This discovery inspired further research. This summer, McElroy will work with her research supervisor, Dr. Tish Doyle-Baker, Dr. PH/PhD, associate dean (graduate) and professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, to investigate.

Doyle-Baker says McElroy has been a keen researcher, and educated the lab group about how Indigenous women have been an underrepresented and underserved group.

“Often, we don’t know a lot about our students. However, at the end of an academic year, the students that stand out have characteristics for dealing with and overcoming setbacks or failures; they find their voice — they’re  brave, organized, set goals and they ‘connect life to learning,’" says Doyle-Baker. "Melissa is all of these, but that last attribute defines her and that’s a recipe for success, in my opinion.” 

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