July 17, 2020

Perseverance, strength of character key to Vanier scholar’s success

PhD candidate Kate Bourne’s determination in face of illness inspires
Kate Bourne on West Coast Trail
Kate Bourne, a 2020 Vanier scholar, is pictured above in red on the West Coast Trail in her ro Courtesy Kate Bourne

Kate Bourne, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), under the mentorship of Dr. Satish Raj, MD, a clinician-researcher with the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, knows perseverance is an important key to success.

And as a recipient of a prestigious 2020 Vanier Scholarship, there is no doubt that Bourne, 30, is a highly successful scholar. In fact, winning the scholarship places her amongst Canada’s elite graduate scholars.

  • Photo above: Kate Bourne (in foreground) on the West Coast Trail in her role as a leader with Girl Guides of Canada. She says she gained much confidence through the Girl Guides program and enjoys helping other young women do the same. Photo courtesy Kate Bourne

Bourne is grateful to be a recipient of a Vanier Scholarship, and says receiving the award will allow her to dedicate more time to her research. “Receiving the Vanier is a huge surprise and a great honour,” she says.

But Bourne’s academic future wasn’t always so certain.

When she was just 12 years old, Bourne began feeling tired and unwell. Her symptoms worsened over the next few years to the point that, in Grade 10, she had to drop out of school. She was able to catch up the following year, finishing both Grades 10 and 11 in a single year, but again had to take a year off before completing Grade 12. 

Bourne didn’t give up, but instead began her undergraduate degree in microbiology at the University of Victoria, in her hometown. But her illness made studying difficult, and she had to have a lighter class load and take numerous breaks. After eight years, Bourne completed her undergraduate degree.

When illness has a silver lining

During this time, 12 long years after she began having symptoms, Bourne was also diagnosed with an autonomic nervous system disorder. The diagnosis was a turning point, as she received treatment and was better able to manage her condition.

But Bourne’s illness has a silver lining — her condition and the frustration of an extremely delayed diagnosis is what solidified her lifelong ambition of becoming a physician. Bourne first began saying she wanted to be a doctor at age three, when she spent time visiting her father in the hospital before he passed away.

“My personal experience played a defining role in my desire to become a physician,” says Bourne, explaining she hopes to specialize in cardiology and continue her research with a focus on the unique issues women face when it comes to their cardiovascular health.

Bourne was recently accepted into the Leaders in Medicine program at the CSM. This program allows her to complete her PhD studies in the CSM’s cardiovascular and respiratory science graduate program before starting medical school.

Vanier Scholarship just one of Bourne's many awards

The Vanier Scholarship may be the most prestigious award Bourne has received, but it certainly isn’t the first. She has received several graduate awards, such as a UCalgary Eyes High Graduate Recruitment Award, a Libin Institute PhD Award and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Canada Graduate Scholarship.

Bourne’s research focuses on the multi-dimensional impact of Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), an under-recognized autonomic nervous system disorder that predominantly affects young girls and women. One important study used data from more than 4,800 POTS patients and found that the average diagnostic delay for these patients is 4.9 years.

Patients with POTS have a fast heartbeat when they stand, causing symptoms like light-headedness, chest pain, nausea, blurry vision, shaking, headaches and difficulty thinking properly. Fatigue is also common, and POTS can have a huge impact on quality of life.

“POTS can really affect the trajectory of a young woman’s life,” says Bourne, explaining the most common age of onset for POTS is 14. “That is why it is critical that we learn more about what causes the disorder and learn to better diagnose and treat it.”

Passion for research, community

And that’s why Bourne is so excited to be receiving a Vanier Scholarship.

“One of the things I find really exciting is that the reviewers saw the importance of my POTS research,” she says. “I believe this work will have a huge impact.”

Raj agrees and is proud of his student’s work inside and outside of the lab, explaining she actively gives back to the community. 

“Kate has been a wonderful student and scholar,” he says. “However, she is an even better person and citizen. Even if she did not suffer from her illness, Kate’s accomplishments with the Girl Guides and working as a first responder at numerous events would be remarkable.

"In the setting of the health challenges that she has had, her accomplishments — both within and outside of academia — have been outstanding and reflect her perseverance and strength of character. We are lucky to have Kate as a member of the University of Calgary community.”

Kate Bourne, PhD candidate and Vanier scholar

Kate Bourne, PhD candidate at the Cumming School of Medicine, and Vanier scholar.

Courtesy Kate Bourne