U of A medical student honoured with Rhodes scholarship

By Julia Necheff
University of Alberta Express News

Third-year medical student Peter Gill has accomplished more at the age of 23 than many people achieve in an entire career. And he's just getting started.

An outstanding scholar and athlete who is active in student affairs, advocacy and voluntary causes, Gill has been chosen to receive a Rhodes scholarship. He is the U of A's 25th Rhodes Scholar and the third to come from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry in the last five years.

"It's like a dream; I haven't been able to sleep very well these past few days," Gill said after learning of the honour, the culmination of a year's worth of hard work in preparation for the most prestigious scholarship in the English-speaking world.

Gill, who was born and raised in Edmonton, was multi-talented from an early age. He started playing soccer at the age of six, and by the time he was in high school he was invited to try out for a professional team in England. However, an injury at the age of 16 sidelined his soccer career and ended his dream of eventually earning a sports scholarship to an Ivy-League school, sending him in a different direction.

"That door slammed shut quite dramatically," Gill said, "but in hindsight, things have worked out for the best."

He enrolled in the Faculty of Science at the U of A, majoring in biological science and minoring in business. With his top marks he was accepted into the medical school after only three years of undergraduate studies.

Gill says he chose to remain at the U of A because of the medical school's "world-class teachers and strong research program.

"The faculty is known for its strong mentorship of students and it has a reputation for producing top graduates."

Gill's exposure to medical research began as an undergraduate summer research student involved in work related to the Edmonton Protocol treatment for Type 1 diabetes. Since starting medical school he has conducted studies in pediatric cardiology under the guidance of Yashu Coe, professor in the Department of Pediatrics and a renowned pediatric cardiologist.

Gill says he always puts a strong emphasis on his academic work. Yet he managed to find time to volunteer for a local candidate in the 2004 federal election and also headed up the political advocacy committee of the Canadian Federation of Medical Students. Concerned about student-debt load, the activists lobbied both in Ottawa and at the Alberta legislature, telling politicians that high tuition was a creating barrier to medical education for students from lower socio-economic groups.

As an undergrad student Gill volunteered for a year in the pediatric cancer unit at Alberta Health Services-Stollery Children's Hospital and organized a fundraiser for Kids With Cancer. Last summer he did a four-week volunteer elective in a small rural hospital in Uganda.

Prior to his trip, Gill said he thought he'd take over a couple duffel bags of soccer equipment for children there. It snowballed into a full-fledged fundraiser for SOS Children's Villages, an international charity. With the support of the local soccer community, they ended up shipping 1,200 pounds of jerseys, balls and other equipment to Africa.

For the past four years Gill has also provided respite care for a family with 10-year-old boy who is congenitally blind. "I help them in whatever way I can," he said. "This family has become very important to me, it's a very important part of who I am."

Gill plans to study in the Oxford Centre for Primary Care Pediatrics when he goes to England next fall. He has a strong interest in public-health policy, and as a clinician he says he wants to focus on disease prevention.

After his two years at Oxford, he will come back and finish his fourth year of medicine here. "I want to complete my medical program in Alberta as I plan on practising here when I finish residency," he said.

Verna Yiu, acting vice-dean in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, says Gill exemplifies the strength of character, well-roundedness and leadership qualities sought by the keepers of the Rhodes Trust, the legacy of 19th-century South African titan Cecil Rhodes, who wished to educate the future leaders of the world by providing them with scholarships to Oxford.

All the medical and dental students in the faculty are exceptional in their own right but Gill is unique, she said. "When you meet Peter, you just know he's a very nice person," she said and that he's very humble and he works very, very hard at whatever he does.

"And whatever he chooses to do, he does because he's passionate about it."

Yiu says she has no doubt that important things are in store for Gill. "Peter will definitely play a major leadership role in the future within the medical field and likely even beyond medicine."