April 1, 2017

Dr. Rita Watterson | Juggling priorities leads student to help vulnerable people

Although she once briefly dreamed of opening a trapeze school, when it came time for Rita Watterson to decide what to do with her life, you might say she couldn’t fight fate.

Although she once briefly dreamed of opening a trapeze school, when it came time for Rita Watterson to decide what to do with her life, you might say she couldn’t fight fate.

“My grandfather was a psychiatrist,” says Rita, who will be graduating from the Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) psychiatry residency program in 2018. “My mother is a psychiatrist, too. Both my parents are physicians and they both went to the University of Calgary.”

As a young teenager, Rita took trapeze lessons at the resorts her family went to for their summer vacations. “I did all the fancy stuff – I learned how to get caught and all that,” she says, laughing. “I was really into circus and trapeze, but starting a school was a bit of a pipe dream.”

She was later drawn to medicine partly because she enjoyed science. After earning a bachelor of science in anatomy and cell biology at McGill University in 2006, she received a master of public health (global health) at Simon Fraser University in 2010. 

Rita was also fascinated by people, leading her to want to help individual patients. “I was drawn to understanding people’s stories,” she says.

While earning her degree as an MD in 2013 from the CSM, she decided to become a psychiatrist instead of a family physician. “I think psychiatry, and mental illness overall, is a very neglected area and there is a significant level of stigma around it,” she says.

 “I think there is so much we don’t know about it, from a cultural and social determinant level all the way down to the biological and genetic level. It is the intersection between the mind and the brain, and because of that, we still have a lot to learn.”

Rita particularly wants to improve the lives of vulnerable people. She helped set up the CSM’s Global Health concentration, which aims to boost training for medical students so they can better serve patients ranging from refugees to Indigenous people.

“It allows students specific international electives, with mentorship abroad and locally, as well as research opportunities that might not otherwise be available,” she says. Rita also works in countries such as Tanzania in Africa, where cities such as Mwanza only have one psychiatrist serving 10 million people.

She helped co-create Kolabo, an organization associated with the University of Calgary that works collaboratively with the Catholic University of Health and Allied Sciences in Mwanza. It helps build healthier communities by creating collaborative, broad-based mental health education for trainees.

Since 2014, Kolabo has taught more than 200 medical and graduate students, as well as funded the training of a second psychiatrist for Mwanza. “We are helping to grow its psychiatry department, as well as its mental health education within its medical and public health school,” says Rita.

Once she graduates from the CSM’s residency program in 2018, Rita hopes to continue her work at the faculty. As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, she is excited by the faculty’s prospects for the next 50 years.

“I would like to see it continue to grow and serve our marginalized populations, and really reveal to the medical students the inequities that are across our system – and how, as physicians, we can be advocating for patients,” she says.

Tidbits from Rita:

Do you have any hidden talents: I can juggle.

What does it mean to you that the faculty is celebrating its 50th anniversary: I think it has come a long way. It will be extremely interesting to see how it progresses during the next 50 years.

What advice would you give to incoming students: Keep an open mind. Explore new directions you might not otherwise have considered.