CANDID: Meet Leigh McClarty
Roughly 3,800 students are enrolled in the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Graduate Studies. They come from around the world to study here and UM Today is getting to know some of them on a more personal level. We want to know who they are and why they chose the field they did, and about their hobbies, regrets and musical tastes — anything, really, that comes up in conversation.
CANDID is a new regular feature that will bring these remarkable individuals to the fore. Enjoy!
UM Today: Are you from here?
Leigh McClarty: Yes. I’m like Winnipeg’s number one fan. I shouldn’t actually say that. Don’t tell anyone I said that. But I like to think that I am.
What is it you love about Winnipeg?
I don’t know. It’s just a part of me.
In a nutshell, what do you do?
I do global public health, so mostly I do stuff that has to do with HIV prevention. My master’s was focusing on an HIV vaccine and the acceptability around that in South India. And so now I think it’s less clear what I’ll be doing for my PhD, or at least in my own brain it is… I think I’ll focus on HIV in Manitoba. Originally, I was thinking of doing something internationally, but I do some research assistant work with the Manitoba HIV program, so it’s kind of drawn me in a bit.
You’re more into quantitative then?
My background in is microbiology, that’s true, but the vaccine thing was not research on the vaccine. There is this concept of vaccine acceptability… so, for the HPV vaccine, there was a lot of pushback because people didn’t want to take it. So the idea with this type of study is to assess what the potential acceptability would be in target populations. It’s more about people’s perceptions of this kind of technology being introduced into their lives.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be?
I don’t know. People always seem to know that. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I think for some short time I wanted to be a dentist because my mom is a dentist but I actually know I would hate that.
For a while I wanted to go into medicine and then I realized that’s not the type of learning I wanted to do. I guess I prefer the academic sort of learning, more theoretical stuff.
So I don’t know. I kind of just landed here and I don’t really know how.
So your mom is a dentist, is your dad a scientist?
Yeah. My dad is a prof in med-micro here but right now he’s also working at the National Microbiology Lab. He’s the director of some unit.
So he must be happy you’re pursuing research.
I guess. This is in my blood to some extent.
I have always been interested in health and my [microbiology] background sort of led me to like infectious disease a lot. So that’s what I’m interested in: infectious disease in the context of public health.
Who are you supervisors?
Jamie Blanchard as well as Marissa Becker. Jamie is my primary.
Have they given you, or has your dad given you good advice?
I don’t go to my dad for academic advice. I’d rather just do it on my own a little. I talk to him about it but I don’t seek advice from him.
I guess the best advice I have gotten is that this isn’t the end of the world. That everything I am doing isn’t going to necessarily determine what I’m going to do in the future. There’ve just been a lot of big decisions I have had to make and they stress me out and both Jamie and Marissa have been good at reinforcing that, yeah, this is an important step, but it is not the determining factor. So that’s been really helpful to calm me down.
It was a big decision for me to either stay focused on global issues – stuff outside of Canada – or switch to local stuff. And that was really big for me. I have always wanted to focus on the global side of health issues and changing my direction was kind of traumatic for me. So in that context they were like, ‘You know what, even if you focus locally it’s not going to close any doors, it’s just going to be a different path to wherever you end up.’
And I think that is good advice for me, mostly because I like to have a plan most of the time. So this whole process of graduate school has made me relax in that sense: it’s all going to be fine and I just have to go with it.
What is it about global health you like?
I don’t know. I knew you were going to ask me a question like this and I don’t know how to answer it.
So my interest in infectious disease sort of leads you, in a lot of ways, to working internationally because infectious disease is less of an imminent or immediate problem here in the West. So that, to some extent. But I have just always been interested in learning about different ways of living and existing. And I like traveling but that sounds flaky to say, ‘Yeah, I’m in global public health because I like to travel.’
And it’s a really fantastic program here with Jamie Blanchard and Stephen Moses. It’s a really nice opportunity to be in this environment with these amazing people at the Centre. They’re all lovely.
Do you have a hobby?
I’m a boring person. Not really.
I volunteer at the West End Cultural Centre, so that’s a fairly important thing to me and I’ve been doing that for a really long time now. Like seven years.
Do you play music yourself?
How did you end up there?
I really like music and in my early 20s or something I was just one of those people who went to shows all the time and I was into that local music scene and I just really liked it. So I randomly applied to volunteer there and it’s amazing. Everyone is so lovely there.
And it’s a nice thing to just do. It’s just once or twice a month, you work a show, you get to see live music and interact with people, which you don’t get to do often when you’re a graduate student.
What’s your biggest regret?
Academically? I’m fairly content. I don’t take risks enough but that’s just my personality so I don’t regret that, but I acknowledge it.
You like to travel. What is your favourite country you’ve been to?
That’s too hard. I like different countries for different reasons.
Uganda is really special to me.
My friend and I, when we were 18, we started a not-for-profit organization in Uganda.
What’s it called?
Kwagala Foundation. We work in a small village in Uganda, and I’ve only had a chance to go once for just under two months and that was amazing so I hope that I will get time again to do that soon.
Does the non-profit still operate?
What does it do?
We do a few things but one of our main things is child sponsorship. So we just get kids to school. We have sponsors in Canada and the States that pay school fees for the kids and they go to school.
We’ve managed to maintain that. That was our first undertaking and it has been maintained as our longest-running project. And over the years we have had other sort of finite projects, like agriculture projects where we provided seed donations, or a seed grant, to the community and they basically use that money to expand their farming beyond subsistence farming.
We’ve introduced some fun programs. We bought some sports equipment for the kids.
We really try to focus on the community. They basically present proposals to us. They are amazing and organized. So they give us proposals and we negotiate what is feasible
So yeah, that’s a big piece of my life.
Yeah, no big deal, I just run a non-profit. No big deal. So, you’re humble.
I don’t know. I don’t… I have just never been comfortable talking about myself with people. I really love listening to people. That’s what I get more joy out of — listening to people tell me about their life and learning, rather than sharing my own.
Okay. So Uganda. What other country is a top pick?
I love India. Well, I shouldn’t say India as a country because I have only seen a fraction of it, but for my master’s I was in Bangalore for like three months and that was lovely, and I was just back there this fall for a training program that both Claudyne and I are a part of and I spent another two months there. It’s different.
Uganda has a different piece of my heart, and India has my academic heart. I guess those are the two countries that I like a lot. I also really like Copenhagen. That’s a really lovely city, for different reasons of course. And Stockholm. I like Scandinavia.
Copenhagen is my all-time favourite city though.