Biochemistry student named 3M fellow for leadership

Sarah Khan has a distinctive definition of the word “leadership,” the quality for which she was recently awarded a prestigious 3M National Student Fellowship. 

“When you hear the word, it sounds like you have to take charge and be the boss, but I think it’s almost the opposite,” says the University of Victoria biochemistry undergraduate. “Leadership means taking a step back to observe those around you and the situation. You need to learn from that, adapt quickly and then move forward with the best plan of action.”

She practises this approach wherever she goes. It's earned her a Schulich Leadership Scholarship, helped her successfully propose an $85,000 youth training program for the Quadra-Village area, and guided her as she developed cancer-blocking molecules in UVic chemist Fraser Hof's research lab.

“Sarah’s research team had been struggling for months before her arrival,” says Hof. “They were working on a new technique to develop cancer-blocking molecules, but the technical work was frustratingly inconsistent. Sarah seized on the challenge. Within weeks she laid the foundation for a solution that allowed the whole team to move forward.”

Every project that Khan takes on is a piece of a puzzle that fits into her ultimate goal of becoming a family physician. Her research in biology and chemistry labs allowed her to expand outside her biochemistry program and learn about the process of developing therapeutics from an insider’s prospective. Taking a course in the sociology of health helped her better understand how scientific findings are disseminated into society.

“She doesn’t seek opportunities to check a box or to fill a gap in her résumé,” says co-op coordinator Rozanne Poulson, who nominated Khan for the 3M fellowship. “She looks for those opportunities that will allow her to become the best physician she can be.”

Khan always thought about being a doctor, but this goal solidified in Grade 12 when her father suffered a stroke. They were left navigating the challenges of health care in Kitimat, a town of just over 8,000 people in northwest British Columbia.

“The doctors rotate each month. One doctor would see him and the next month there would be a new one, who didn’t know what the last doctor did,” says Khan. “And when we went to Vancouver for more treatment, there was an even bigger disconnect. I took that all in and it made me want to be the person that provides better health service to my community.”

Khan’s solution? An integrative health centre that addresses the challenges of disjointed and often impersonal services. This vision connects almost everything she does.

“Like everyone applying to medical school, I need to volunteer as part of my application,” says Khan. “But I wanted to make sure that my experience was meaningful, and that I was making a difference. I looked for places that could really use volunteers, even if it wasn’t in a clinical environment.”

This has meant getting involved with a United Way community project and volunteering with Operation Trackshoes, where she supervised young people with behavioural challenges. Most recently, Khan sought out a volunteer co-op at Tall Tree Integrated Health, a holistic health centre in Cordova Bay, where she shadowed a physiotherapist and occupational therapist.

“I was biking by and thought this is exactly what I want in my community,” says Khan. “I contacted the owner and built a relationship from there.”

This is the fourth year in a row that a UVic student has been awarded a 3M National Student Fellowship and the second year in a row for the same department. With only 10 students chosen from across the country, selection is based on outstanding leadership in and outside of the classroom.