Rylan McCallum

Heart of Helping: Rylan McCallum Innovates in Indigenous Wellness Research

"Don't hesitate. Don't hold back. Good things will happen." The words are simple but they go right to the heart of inspiration Rylan McCallum hopes other Indigenous youth will draw from his experience. Rylan is Métis and Anishinaabe from his mother's side and Scottish from his father's side and grew up in Southern Manitoba on Treaty One territory.

McCallum currently lives in the Kitsilano neighbourhood in Vancouver and works at St. Paul's Hospital, in the UBC Center for Heart Lung Innovation under the supervision of Dr. Liam Brunham. He has worked as a volunteer, then as a research student funded under the Undergraduate Student Research Award and then did a Master's of Science in Experimental Medicine at UBC.

He started working in research in a seaweed lab studying macro algae under Dr. Patrick Martone at UBC in the research mentorship program, then transitioned into the botany department researching plants in the North Cascades. Following that research, he moved into studying Indigneous health and wellness. 

“I didn't really know what I wanted to do when I was growing up. I always knew I love talking to people and helping people,” he remembers. He thought he might become a high school teacher and always had an interest in learning about science. With healthcare, he gets to study science and help people, making it an aligned path forward for him.

During the pandemic, his research was put on the pandemic as his supervisor, a cardiologist and medical doctor, helped fight COVID during the initial waves. He’s looking forward to more direct patient interactions instead of just working online in the future. As a student and learner, this is far from his first challenge to overcome.

Raised by a teacher, he knew how to study and how much and got through high school with relative ease while in Manitoba. He moved to UBC on his own on a whim and found the isolation challenging. He made a positive social circle and found the burden of loneliness ease over his undergraduate degree and he achieved better results academically.

In his first year, he did not excel and he struggled with his mental health. "I always thought that one year that I didn't do well was going to determine the outcome of my life," he reflects. He hung onto that as evidence he would not succeed in the future and that it would be a barrier to graduate studies but that turned out to be the furthest thing from the truth. "It's so small looking back on it.  Don't let a few bad grades (or even a lot of bad grades) hold you back from what you want to do." McCallum counsels.

Illustration by Shaikara David

After his experience of social isolation, he has advice to students considering leaving their home community for school or work. "I would definitely say don't not do it because you don't know anyone. It's a brand new experience and experiences are part of life.It's a huge learning experience and so it's definitely worth it," he encourages.

To get through the initial loneliness he suggests, "Even though you may have those initial feelings of isolation, communicate with people, just random people, as soon as you're there. Talk to people and learn from others and then you'll generate this social circle. It gets better over time." He signed up for the science undergraduate society and the Indigenous undergraduate research mentorship program to spend more time interacting with people. 

When dealing with mental health challenges, McCallum points to the benefits of physical activity for boosting mental health along with spending time outside. He likes to go backpacking, hiking, and to the beach. His spirits are lifted with the joy of social interactions he thrives off of as an extrovert, and it’s also helped him get ahead. That, and his sheer determination to succeed.

Reflecting on what he might say to a younger version of himself, he says, "There's gonna be bumps in the road. It's not the straight pathway to success. You're gonna have to overcome a lot of things so just don't give up hope. You can do what you want to do as long as you set your mind to it. Just keep trying to do whatever you want to do. Making connections and talking to people is a huge way to do that. You’ll find a lot more success through others than if you isolate yourself."

Steady on his path to meaningful research and pushing forward in his career, Rylan McCallum is creating a heartbeat of inspiration at the UBC Center for Heart Lung Innovation. Building strong social connections and supporting healthy circulatory systems, McCallum is fulfilling his dream of helping people while exploring his love of science, all because he followed his own advice: "Don't hesitate. Don't hold back. Good things will happen."

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

September 2022 Update: Rylan is still pursuing his Master's of Science in Experimental Medicine at UBC, and is looking to apply to medical school in the fall. His main goal is to travel to Indigenous communities to work with them answering questions they may have about their communities' health through research, while also addressing the need for rural Indigenous physicians.

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