Alumni Gold Medal Award Winner: Matthew James Schmitz BSc ’20 Biomedical Sciences

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

When asked about the Toronto Raptor’s 2nd round exit from the NBA finals last month, Matthew Schmitz sighs and 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 in his convocation robe and hoodThe bubble, of course, refers to the league quarantined ecosystem that all NBA players contain themselves in since resuming league play during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus, which has caused a necessary shift to online learning at all Canadian Universities, has made the final few months of most university studies challenging to say the least. Despite the challenges, Matthew was awarded the Alumni Gold Medal, emerging 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. However, deciding on a program of study proved a little more challenging. Although he started out in systems design engineering, Matthew quickly realized that his passion was science, and ultimately medicine, and made the switch to the biomedical sciences program after first year. 

It wasn’t long before Matthew 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.

“I was thrilled to hear that Matt had won the Alumni Gold Medal. I can't think of a more deserving recipient!”, Duncker raves, “I'd say he's the most talented undergrad student to ever work in my lab. 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. Duncker goes on to say that Matthew’s research is being featured prominently in a manuscript Duncker be submitting soon for publication.

On top of his remarkable scientific skills, Duncker reflects that Matthew is one of the friendliest, and most generous students in terms of assisting others he has ever had the pleasure of supervising. 

Despite his focus on academics, Matthew rounded out his undergraduate experience with several extracurricular activities. During his senior year he participated in iGem, a research group focussing on ways to use synthetic biology to tackle today's world wide problems. He became a peer tutor in Waterloo’s Writing and Communication Centre, an experience he felt was especially rewarding. The interview skills and empathy for others would later translate to patient triage interviews in medical school. Matthew also became a Science Ambassador, introducing future Waterloo students to campus, student life and the programs they could apply to. He had a great time and wishes he had been involved in such activities much sooner in his undergraduate life.

With his degree behind him, and his medical studies well underway, it’s natural to expect Matthew 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, Matthew says his family has been extremely supportive of his decision to switch to biomedical science and eventually pursue a career in medicine. He admits its tough watching his brother graduate from Engineering and already have a great job lined up.  After he gets his medical degree, Matthew is planning either a specialization in cancer research or surgery.

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

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