Trinity School of Medicine has always prided itself on the strength and ambition of its students. So many future physicians come our way looking for something new; whether that's a unique learning environment built on support and a strong relationship with the faculty, a curriculum with an emphasis on clinical skills and service to patients, or just a true opportunity to live up to their potential. In this next edition of our alumni spotlight, meet Dr. Mary Anne Brett, McMaster undergrad alum, Trinity graduate, and anatomical pathologist in Calgary, AB.
What brought you into medicine?
I've always been interested in science, so earning a degree in biology and life sciences at McMaster University was a pretty direct path. Similarly, after that, it was a natural progression to go into medicine. It was always in the back of my mind throughout undergrad, I knew it was the route I was going. It spoke to me. I enjoy being challenged, and the environment, the act of going to school was something that always appealed to me. Really though, I enjoy the actual science behind the practice, that's what took me to pathology in particular, it's so very methodical and science-driven. I was drawn to it early on, but as I've learned in practice, it’s a very rewarding field for me, and it keeps giving me more and more opportunities to work and learn.
Trinity was only two years old when you matriculated. What brought the school to your attention?
In my third year of undergrad, I applied to all of the Canadian schools that I could. Like most applicants, I did not get in, and started looking abroad for other options. The Canadian system is so competitive, widening that view increased my chances dramatically. I started looking online and seeing what was available and that’s how I found Trinity. That was in 2009.
What ultimately helped you make the decision?
I debated re-applying to Canadian schools, but knew the chances of getting in were probably low. I realized that I would probably need a master's degree or PhD to be competitive, and I didn't want that, I really just wanted to go to medical school. I decided that once I was accepted that I should take the chance on (what was then) a new school. The tuition was fairly comparable to US and Canadian schools and I was told that the professors were top-notch. Also, the early experience at Milton Cato Hospital was something that is unique; usually students don't see patients until they start their 3rd year of medical school.
St. Vincent is a big transition from Canada. How was it?
Traveling that far from home was a bit scary initially, packing up a suitcase and moving to a foreign country is a big step, but once I got down there everyone was very friendly. Right when I got off the plane I saw Keith Hollers [ed. Mr. Hollers is director of student services to this day at Trinity], he had a box in his hand that said Trinity, so I tapped him on the shoulder and he brought me to campus. [ed. the welcome process is much more formalized these days. While incoming students are frequently greeted by Keith Hollers, there is also a committee of students with welcome baskets, social events, etc.] Once classes got started it was great, like any other school I'd attended.
I made a close group of friends almost right away. Dr. Lauren Blue (lived with her during rotations) and Kris Vlahovic, I lived also with Dr. Chris Denapoles and Dr. Lucy Gonzales. We had a car and shared it living in a house together, it was great. I'm still in touch with them, as well as Cat Nowierski (Dr. Nowierski is currently in residency in Ontario).
Any particular memories of your time at Trinity?
During basic sciences, I spent one day a week in the hospital doing patient interviews and rotating through different departments to get insight on what was out there.
And as part of our homework, we always had to write up patient dictation and submit it, and have that evaluated and see how we did. This was before clinical clerkships! It's similar to how Canada operates for residency. For the first year in Canada, you rotate through different departments and that’s where I really relied on those skills. I was much more at ease from that experience on St. Vincent. It's a very stressful part of medical training early on, but as you go through it it gets easier.
Where did you match? What drew you to your specialty?
For my residency, I matched into anatomical pathology at Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. I remember when we did our clinical time at Milton Cato on St. Vincent, we rotated through pathology and watched autopsies. I vividly remember it, the methodical approach stuck with me. During basic sciences, we did quite a bit of pure pathology [ed. the curriculum has changed in some regards since Dr. Brett's time at Trinity ] going through the Robbins textbook with Dr. Krishna [ed. Dr. Krishna has moved on from Trinity, but interestingly enough, the current pathology professor, Dr. Dragan Jovanovic, is also perennial student favorite]. That level of exposure to pathology is not typical of Canadian schools and I felt gave me an advantage when it came time to apply for residencies back home. I've finished my residency, and right now I’m at the University of Calgary doing a one year fellowship in Gynecologic pathology.
Are you working on any research projects?
I’m involved in a ton of research! In residency and beyond, it’s part of the curriculum and work expectations. As a result, I've got multiple projects going. I basically am looking at ovarian cancer and the short story of it is interrogating the genetics within ovarian cancer. We’re looking at different molecular markers to determine how to classify the prognostic markers, so put them into different molecular sub-types to help give patients a better idea of their overall prognosis. I can't encourage research enough during medical school. It's very helpful during residency applications. I also find it very personally and professionally fulfilling.
Any specific advice for Canadians looking to head back home?
Be realistic about the amount of spots available, it’s very difficult to match in Canada. During residency you can help select applicants and it’s pretty cut throat, there are just so many. It’s quite difficult, but obviously possible. If you’re interested in a field at a hospital, I highly recommend setting up rotations there through Trinity and letting the attendings and residents know how interested you are. Become a known quantity, get involved in research while you're there, and make it known you want to come back not just to a program, but their program.
Is there anything you'd like to pass on to current and future Trinity students?
Trinity really provides an excellent opportunity for us to succeed as physicians, and I would recommend to the Canadian student to apply to CaRMS and NRMP, it’s possible you won't match back in Canada, statistically it's unlikely. It's not the end of practicing in Canada, though. There are so many excellent residencies in the States and you can come back after you finish. The door doesn't close at residency; I know a lot of pathologist colleagues that did exactly this for residency and fellowship, but they came back to Canada to work. It doesn’t seem to be an issue in my experience. Both streams would provide equal opportunities to become a great physician.
Back on the school, I think Trinity provides a unique opportunity where you live abroad and also study quite extensively and you get to meet new friends and people from all over the world that you wouldn’t at a US or Canadian school. It’s such a unique opportunity for the students, it really gives you a different perspective on the world. You start med school very young and you grow up fast living abroad, you learn how to think on your feet and take care of yourself in a different kind of way. Trinity is a great opportunity for me and I’m glad I went there.