Personal experience fuels student’s medical aspirations

March 30, 2012 - 2:02am

Two significant events sparked William Cope’s dream of becoming a doctor – a rare childhood illness that left him partially paralyzed and his father’s battle with Parkinson’s disease.

His dream is about to become reality. Cope has been accepted into Cornell University’s prestigious Weill Cornell Medical College, an Ivy League medical school in New York City. He’s one of approximately 20 students selected from more than 6,000 applicants. The class will ultimately be made up of just over 100 students.

“I am very excited,” says the 22-year-old Bachelor of Science graduate of Vancouver Island University.

Since graduating from VIU in June 2011, Cope has spent the past year applying to medical schools – four in Canada and 18 in the United States. He attended interviews at seven schools in the US and was accepted by four.

He was also invited to two interviews in Canada at the University of BC and University of Toronto but withdrew from both in favour of Cornell.

“I chose Cornell because it’s among the absolute best medical schools in North America and is affiliated with New York’s top hospital as well as the top cancer hospital and orthopedic hospital in the nation,” says Cornell. “I believe that studying at Cornell and living in the Upper East Side of New York will be a life-changing experience.”

Cope knows all about the impact of major life events. While growing up in Qualicum Beach, he was a typical carefree kid with a passion for BMX racing. His life changed overnight when, at age 13, he suffered a cerebral aneurism (bleeding in the brain) caused by a staph infection.

Spending a month in BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver and a month at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital temporarily paralyzed on his right side, gave him plenty of time to observe medical practitioners at work.

Those early interactions with health care professionals sparked Cope’s desire to become a doctor. That desire became stronger when his father Bruce was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2005. Last year, father and son, both avid cyclists, pedaled across Canada and raised $10,000 for Parkinson’s research.

Cope brought his passion, drive and determination to become a medical doctor to VIU when he enrolled in the undergraduate Bachelor of Science program in 2007. He’d planned to attend a big-city university after high school until family friend Dr. Cheryl Warsh suggested he consider the science program at VIU.

“I didn’t know anything about VIU but Cheryl, who teaches History at VIU, told me about the program’s reputation and excellent faculty. She was right on every level,” says Cope.

“The personal attention I received from the science faculty, my undergraduate research experience, hands-on learning and the small class sizes were instrumental in my success. For me, attending a smaller regional university was the best possible thing. I can’t imagine a better experience than the one offered at VIU.”

Cope’s undergraduate research at VIU focused on molecular biology. In a year-long research project mentored by VIU professor Dr. Caroline Josefsson, he researched the molecular basis of hybrid incompatibility in Arabidopsis plants.

“Completing the project was a fantastic experience,” says Cope. “It opened my eyes to the rigors of scientific research and deepened my respect of those who follow it as a career.”

On the advice of Josefsson, he applied for and won a $17,500 scholarship from the Natural Sciences Engineering Research Council to complete a Masters degree. However, he turned the award down in favour of attending Cornell.

“Pursuing medicine at Cornell is a perfect opportunity to combine my love of science with helping humanity in a career I know I’ll enjoy,” he says.

“I am so proud of William’s accomplishments and feel very fortunate to have been part of his journey toward medical school,” says Josefsson. “His success is a reflection of his incredibly strong work ethic and dedication and illustrates that the work you do at VIU can take you to some extraordinary places.

“William has all the traits for becoming an excellent physician; intellectual rigor combined with interpersonal skills and great respect for other people. I hope he’ll return to practice medicine in our community as soon as he can.”

Cope moves to New York City in August. Until then, he will focus on tutoring students in Biology and Chemistry in his home town, finishing the construction of a 20-foot aluminium powerboat with his father, and relaxing a little before many more years of schooling.

This summer, he plans to hike 300 kilometres of the Appalachian Trail with a friend from VIU. Undoubtedly, the hike will prepare him well for the mental challenges he’ll face at medical school.

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