When asked about the Toronto Raptor’s second round exit from the NBA finals last month, Matthew Schmitz sighs. His disappointment is tangible. “I was worried about them playing the Celtics,” he admits, “I thought maybe it might be different playing in the bubble, but in the end, they were just too tough. But they gave it a good shot.”

Matthew Schmitz's graduation photoThe bubble, of course, refers to the league quarantined ecosystem that all NBA players lived in since resuming league play during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus also caused a shift to online learning at Canadian universities and has made the final few months of studies challenging to say the least. Despite the challenges, Schmitz emerged with the highest cumulative average in the Faculty of Science and is continuing his studies this fall at the University of Toronto’s School of Medicine.

Choosing to study at the University of Waterloo was a fairly easy choice for the Waterloo native, who always knew that UWaterloo was key to his academic success. But deciding on a program of study proved a little more difficult. Although he started out in systems design engineering, Schmitz quickly realized that his passion was for science, and ultimately medicine, and made the switch to the biomedical program after his first year.

It wasn’t long before he embraced the change, quickly making solid strides in his new program that gave him the flexibility he craved to explore his varied interests. Embracing cell biology and genetics, especially in his senior year, he began working for Waterloo biology professor and associate vice-president, interdisciplinary research, Bernie Duncker, in his research lab. Duncker’s lab studies cancer-related research on yeast including the initiation of eukaryotic DNA replication and cell cycle checkpoints. Schmitz’s academic accomplishments were celebrated in spring 2020 when he was awarded the Faculty of Science Alumni Gold Medal.

“I was thrilled to hear that Matt had won the Alumni Gold Medal. I can't think of a more deserving recipient!” Duncker raves. On top of his remarkable scientific skills, Duncker calls Schmitz one of the friendliest and most generous students in terms of assisting others he has ever had the pleasure of supervising. The research Schmitz worked on will also be featured in a manuscript Duncker will be soon be submitting for publication.

“I'd say he's one of the most talented undergrad students to ever work in my lab,” adds Duncker. “His project involved studying the role of a protein called Rif1 in DNA damage repair, which is an important aspect of cancer prevention. It was remarkable how quickly and thoroughly he became familiar with the background research literature and his lab skills and productivity were just phenomenal.”

Schmitz rounded out his undergraduate experience with several extracurricular activities. During his final year, he participated in iGem, a research group focusing on ways to use synthetic biology to tackle today's worldwide problems. He became a peer tutor in Waterloo’s Writing and Communication Centre, an experience he felt was especially rewarding since the interview skills and empathy for others will translate well to patient triage interviews in medical school. Schmitz also became a science ambassador, introducing future Waterloo students to campus, student life and the programs they could apply to.

With his degree behind him, and his medical studies well underway, it’s natural to expect Schmitz would have plenty of advice to pass along to future students. “Stay true to what interests you,” he suggests, “follow your passions, be open to everything. Don’t sit back. It’s better to make a mistake and learn something about yourself. Allow yourself to be curious”.

Despite the change in academic direction, Schmitz says his family has been extremely supportive of his decision to switch to biomedical science and eventually pursue a career in medicine. After he gets his medical degree, he’s planning either a specialization in cancer research or surgery.

He still has several years of school still ahead of him, but Schmitz is sure of two things: he is doing something he loves and finds extremely rewarding, and that the Toronto Raptors will once again be NBA champions.