Supreme Scholar at UTM
Recent UTM graduate Rachel Stubits was settling in last Friday to check her emails when she saw a message related to graduation awards. She opened it to see if she recognized this year’s recipients for the Governor General’s Silver Medal and John Black Aird Scholarship – but there it was on the screen:
“Dear Rachel Stubits, Congratulations!”
To her delight, she received both the medal and the scholarship, which are awarded annually to recognize top UofT students.
“When I saw that I was the recipient, the weight of everything suddenly dawned upon me,” says Stubits.
“It was honestly – no exaggeration – the happiest moment of my life to date, because it came as such a surprise and these are really tremendous awards. Plus, I know that there are so many students who have done phenomenal work throughout their undergraduate studies. I just felt really deeply humbled.”
She joked that perhaps the fact that she was wearing her favourite UofT sweatshirt when she found out about these awards might have brought her luck, but this bright student definitely earned her success: an astoundingly perfect 4.0 GPA studying molecular biology in UTM’s Department of Biology with a minor in chemistry, while also being involved in several other initiatives on and off campus.
Although she participated in a range of research projects at UTM, Stubits has primarily thrived in Biology with many faculty members serving as educators as well as mentors.
“My first experience with research was when I enrolled in the Research Opportunity Program under the supervision of Dr. Fiona Rawle in Biology,” says Stubits.
“Our project, which focused on misconceptions surrounding antibiotic resistance, helped me build foundational skills that I continue to use to this day.”
Stubits states that she continues to draw not only from the research experience that she gained from this role, but also from the lessons she learned from Dr. Rawle: one of her enduring mentors.
“In BIO152, Dr. Rawle taught me and my classmates not only about biology, but also about how to navigate life in university. She taught me to view failures as learning experiences instead of dead-ends, and she helped me appreciate the importance of being competitive with myself and collaborative with others.”
Over this last year of her UTM studies, she undertook a project for her undergraduate thesis under the direction of biology professor Marcus Dillon, employing computational biology to study the characteristics of a particular type of bacteria that negatively impacts agricultural crops.
“Professor Dillon was the best thesis supervisor I could have wished for,” says Stubits.
“He was incredibly knowledgeable and supportive – very hands-on in helping me troubleshoot issues when they arose – and he fostered a culture of mutual support, respect, and kindness in the lab.
Although her thesis is now complete, she is continuing to work on this project in the Dillon Lab throughout the summer.
Stubits says that she first became interested in science because of health-related issues she began to encounter during high school. She remembers feeling shocked “to realize that small changes to cells and their components could cause such large-scale changes to an organism,” and this interest inspired her to study molecular biology. Stubits’s passion for science was reignited in university because her professors made her courses “engaging and fun” by weaving in “real-world applications” and fostering a learning environment where students could “lean into [their] curiosity.”
Aside from her love of learning, the other aspect to Stubits’ character that emerges clearly is that she recognizes the value of service and getting involved in other activities, outside of her academic commitments, that are meaningful to her.
Throughout her studies at UTM, she volunteered with Community on Campus, a program at UTM that supports individuals with intellectual disabilities as they gain a university experience. For several years, Stubits also worked as a Program Assistant with both the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre (RGASC) Facilitated Study Group Program, as well as the Peer Mentoring Learning Community (PMLC) Program, which is jointly run by RGASC and UTM’s Accessibility Services that assists students with disabilities.
She feels she has made lasting connections here and that being involved in these programs was an opportunity for her to share some of what she has learned along the way. Stubits “often drew from [her] own experiences navigating university with a disability” while working for the PMLC Program.
“I hope that the PMLC Program is a safe space where students with disabilities can reflect on the hurdles they have needed to jump over during their studies, and also advocate for systemic changes that would dismantle those barriers.”
Support is clearly another hallmark for Stubits’ work ethic and she credits this attitude to the network of people who helped her stay afloat along the way, including her many UTM mentors in Biology and beyond, UTM Accessibility Advisor Teresa Jose, but also her parents, her boyfriend Sam, her best friend Anisha, and her uncle Rob for their collective “wisdom, kindness, and support.”
This is not the end of Stubits’ UTM journey either: in August, she will start her first year at the Mississauga Academy of Medicine. Along with the “home away from home” feeling she has established at UTM, she is looking forward to the clinical placements she will undertake as part of the program with Trillium Health Partners and at Credit Valley Hospital where she has been a patient as well as a volunteer.
Stubits has weathered health challenges, not to mention the shifts that the pandemic presented, throughout her time at UTM, and she encourages other students to prioritize their health and well-being, practice self-compassion, find creative ways to connect with their community, and recognize that the way forward is not always a straight line.
“I took an entire year off my undergraduate studies to recover from surgeries, and over the years, I have dropped more classes than I can count,” says Stubits.
“However, I found it easier to mould my studies to my needs rather than mould myself to my preconceived notion of what a ‘normal’ undergraduate journey looks like. Although I wish I maintained more optimism along that path, looking back on it, I can see that this convoluted journey was exactly what I needed to get to where I am today.”
- Stubits’ work was previously covered by UTM News in 2019 for a project she did related to the.
- The Governor General's Silver Medal is awarded annually to two students, one from the sciences and one from the arts, on each University of Toronto campus. The recipients are graduating students with the highest average from a University of Toronto undergraduate program.
- The John Black Aird Scholarship is awarded annually to the top student from an undergraduate degree program from the University of Toronto in honour of John Black Aird, who completed his undergraduate degree at UofT and obtained his law degree from Osgoode Hall. Among his many accomplishments, he served as a Canadian Senator (1964-1974), a Lieutenant Governor of Ontario (1980-1985)