Passion for public health propels UVic student to Oxford


- Valerie Shore

British Columbia's winner of the world's oldest and most prestigious student scholarship for 2014 is a 21-year-old biochemistry student from the University of Victoria.

Dylan Collins will head to Britain's famed University of Oxford next fall as a Rhodes Scholar. The award-which supports outstanding all-round students from around the world-is worth more than $100,000 and covers all travel, living and study expenses at Oxford.

"We're extremely proud of Dylan and his achievement," says UVic President Jamie Cassels. "He's an outstanding student who has pushed himself in the classroom, the lab, the community and the workplace to get a well-rounded perspective and hands-on experience in his chosen field of study. His determination to make a difference in the world is remarkable."

Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Collins will join over 20,000 students from more than 140 countries at the university, which is renowned for its rigorous education and vibrant cultural and community life.

"I'm very excited," says Collins, who hails from Tlell, a tiny village on the northeast coast of Haida Gwaii. But he admits that attending Oxford wasn't really on his radar until his research interests started to gel at UVic.

"I fell into this passion for public health," he says. "Once I started thinking about grad school, I looked around for the top people in the field who would be the best mentors possible. That led me to Oxford."

Collins will graduate from UVic in June 2014 with an honours BSc in biochemistry. But his bulging academic r&e#180;sum&e#180; spans much more than the pure sciences.

"I went into biochemistry because I was interested in medicine and health," he says. "But I quickly realized that if I want to make big changes in terms of helping people, then I'd need to shift more toward the social determinants of health."

Funded during his UVic studies by a Loran Scholarship, he completed a series of internships that exposed him to many different aspects of health care.

He worked in Kenya with the Foundation for Sustainable Development to increase the capacity of health care services in a rural region. Seeing street youths habitually sniff glue to ward off hunger pains left an indelible impression.

"Many foreigners seem to easily discount these children, seeing them through the lens of addiction," he says. "I was beginning to understand that this was not a behaviour of leisure, misjudgment or malicious intent, but of survival perpetuated by poverty, marginalization, stigma and disease."

Working with the BC Centre for Disease Control, he was part of a team that developed a province-wide program to reduce injury and deaths from overdoses of opioid drugs-such as morphine and heroin-using an "antidote" drug called naloxone.

"I worked on program policy and design, and then I got to co-teach the first 18 people on Vancouver's downtown east side," says Collins. "Seeing that policy translate into practice was incredibly powerful and sold me on this field of study."

Collins currently serves on the board of AIDS Vancouver Island (AVI), which has signed up as a site to administer naloxone. "Watching AVI staff download our tools and implement them was a full-circle moment for me," he says.

This winter, Collins is completing his honours thesis in a BC Cancer Agency lab on a project that involves the chemical modification of genes or gene-associated proteins. "This field has huge implications for diseases such as cancer," he says.

For the last year, he's been working with UVic's Centre for Aboriginal Health Research (CAHR) and a Haida Gwaii community on a project that explores barriers to harm reduction among Aboriginal people using illicit drugs.

"This experience has been key to my success as an undergraduate and with the Rhodes Scholarship, because it has given me a local and global perspective," he says.

"Dylan ranks among the most gifted students with whom it has been my pleasure to work," says Dr. Charlotte Reading, director of the CAHR. "As one of the world's foremost institutions of learning, Oxford is ideally suited to further prepare Dylan as a leader of the world's future."

At Oxford, Collins will pursue the British equivalent of a PhD through the Nuffield School of Population Health. "I'm committed to exploring the interactions between substance use, social determinants, and the broader context of poverty, colonization, culture and trauma."

Collins also cycles, surfs, sails and rock climbs. He plans to add rowing to that list while at Oxford. "It's been a lifelong dream," he grins, "but for one reason or another I couldn't fit it in-until now."

Up to 11 Rhodes Scholarships are awarded in Canada each year, including one from BC. The scholarships require outstanding scholastic achievement, strong qualities of leadership and character, and a commitment to public service.

UVic has produced seven Rhodes winners in the last 12 years, including last year (2013).


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Keywords: scholarship, study abroad, funding, biochemistry

People: Dylan Collins, Jamie Cassels

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