Profile with Aleks Leligdowicz

Aleksandra Leligdowicz (Manitoba & Balliol 2004) is currently a Critical Care Fellow in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto. She has previously worked in Guinea Bissau, where she set up a research laboratory to study the role of the immune system in disease non-progression in HIV-2 infection. Aleksandra holds a BSc from the University of Manitoba and an MD from McGill University.  Most recently, she was a resident in Internal Medicine at the University of British Columbia. She was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship to study HIV-2 immunology at the Weatherall Institute in Oxford and the Medical Research Council in The Gambia.

Rhodes Project: Could you tell me about a favourite childhood memory?

Aleks Leligdowicz: I grew up in Poland, in a small town of about 2,000 people. That was where my mum got her first job out of university, an internship at a water purification plant, and we lived in government housing.  We didn’t have family there; my grandparents lived in different cities. Ours was a beautiful little village in the Beskidy mountain range in the southern part of Poland, very close to the Czech border. It was a wonderful place to grow up, it was safe, picturesque, and fun.

My favourite childhood memory was just that: being close to nature. Everything was fresh, and there wasn’t much pollution. My parents didn’t have to worry about sending us outside to play. My elementary school was inside the home of one of the lords that used to live in the town. It was a really beautiful villa that was refurbished as a school; being in school made me feel like I was in a magical castle.

Rhodes Project: What was it like making the transition from Poland to Canada?

Aleks Leligdowicz: I was ten years old when we moved to Winnipeg. My sister and I had no idea how far away Canada was; our main concern was who was going to be sitting by the window on the airplane! We didn’t realise that we were very far away from our friends and family, but it made it easier that, when we were in Poland, we had already been quite isolated.  It helped to know that my parents had already made decisions in their lives to live further away from their own families. They were prepared for adventure, which made the transition a little smoother.

Rhodes Project: How did you first become interested in medicine?

Aleks Leligdowicz: I did well in school: the thing that I enjoyed most was the constant challenge of being able to ask questions. There were a lot of ways I could have gone forward with my career. I knew that I wanted to be involved in something that would allow me to be constantly meet new people, constantly be challenged by unanswered questions, and where I could work as part of a team. There wasn’t one particular moment that triggered it. I was also attracted by the idea of continuing to learn; I knew I would never be bored with what I was doing on a day-to-day basis. I knew that the story of each person I worked with would be completely different, and that their joys and struggles in life would be variable.

My journey through medicine has been an evolving and constant learning process. My main role models were people that I met along the way.  The reasons for going into it have changed slightly; learning from those I met along the journey of becoming a physician has made me realise that this profession is much more than I perceived it to be when I was younger. Its potential for changing the lives of individuals and much larger groups of people definitely became apparent when I became more involved in global health. I knew I was constantly going to be challenged, that I would not have one specific job description and that I could shape it to what I was passionate about.

Rhodes Project: What’s the most challenging thing about your job?

Aleks Leligdowicz: It’s a long journey to an ever evolving end. After finishing medical education you don’t become a physician, it is a lifetime journey. In medicine, you are constantly training and learning, which is the exciting part. It is challenging, however, to realise that your friends have moved on and have a separation between daily responsibilities at work and daily lives at home. In medicine, the more specialised you become, the more your daily life and your job are merged into one.

It has been a true privilege to continue to learn and train, but I think you sacrifice a lot – especially as a female – by choosing a path where you are constantly training to get to a stage where you can be fully working in a “real job”. It is challenging to foresee whether I will end up with a position that will allow me to do all the things I dream of doing. Although I hold the opinion that, if you’re really passionate about something, you will figure out the way to mould your future, idealism and dreams sometimes need a reality check. While it’s great to be a student and continue learning, at the end of the day I am cognisant of the possibility that I may not be able to find job that will allow me to do the things I want to do.

Rhodes Project: How has your career as a physician affected your own relationship with your health?

Aleks Leligdowicz: Being a physician makes me appreciate my health to a degree I wouldn’t be able to if I was in a different profession. Witnessing the illness of others makes me realise how fortunate I am to have a functioning body and mind. In health, we have the capacity to do whatever we want with few limitations; a fragile balance of wellness and disease that can be unexpectedly disrupted. Furthermore, living in Canada, a country with a transparent universal medical system, we have a relatively unrestricted access to healthcare. Working as a physician in Africa has made me realise how lucky we are in Canada to have access to preventative medicine and to a large number of physicians and institutions that can provide basic and very advanced medical care. We take that for granted, and I try to remind myself of this frequently.

Rhodes Project: What surprised you most about studying at Oxford?

Aleks Leligdowicz:  I was surprised by how unique the environment was. I was impressed by the small size of the city and how it contained so many exciting individuals from all around the world.  It was filled with brilliant minds who were incredibly humble experts in very divergent areas.

There was never a dull moment during the discussions we had at Rhodes House, or at the Turf Tavern, or at one of our colleges. Although I was usually unfamiliar with the topics we discussed, after a single conversation, my passionate peers made me feel like I could grasp complex ideas. Listening to friends talk about what they were studying, from animal development to international relations, I think was the most incredible part of Oxford. Everybody was so excited about what they were doing, and knew that the possibilities for learning were limitless. Before arriving in Oxford, I didn’t realise just how it would open my eyes and appreciate that, if you really want to achieve something and you have passion, vision and energy, you would succeed.

Rhodes Project: What inspires you, and why?

Aleks Leligdowicz: I’m inspired by people who can persevere with their dreams despite the challenges they face on a daily basis. I’m inspired by those who know that where they want to go is often towards the unexplored. I’m inspired by people who are able to do all this whilst simultaneously having a family.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman looking to go into medicine?

Aleks Leligdowicz:  Don’t be afraid of the challenges that may be ahead, but be cognisant that a long journey awaiting you. Find someone who can guide you along the way, who will be your mentor. Don’t lose sight of your final destination, because the way there won’t take a day, or a year – it will take a lifetime. Your journey will be enriched by both your patients and your colleagues. Be aware that you’re going down a very privileged and exciting road, and that it’s made much richer and easier by finding mentors along the way.

Rhodes Project: Do you have any long term goals?

Aleks Leligdowicz: As I mentioned earlier, Oxford helped me realise that if you’re passionate about achieving something, and you have some idea of how to get there, then the opportunities are endless. The last dozen years have been filled with challenges, and I have moved around a lot. I know that the next several years, too, will also be filled with that. I don’t know where the end of the road is going to be yet, but I want to explore the possibility of working in developing countries again. I fell in love with West Africa – where I worked on my DPhil for over 3 years during my time at Oxford on the Rhodes. The people I met were truly inspirational: a lot of them came from impoverished backgrounds, and despite their struggles, were were wonderful human beings. In the long term I’d love to work with them again, both to learn from and collaborate with them on ideas and projects that would mutually benefit their lives and the lives of Canadians. I would really like to merge my passion in research and clinical medicine, and work with people in different parts of the world.

Rhodes Project: What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?

Aleks Leligdowicz: Right now is the Toronto International Film Festival! I moved to Toronto about three months ago, it’s very exciting to be here with people from around the world with the many festivities currently going on. The Toronto Film Festival is one of the biggest film festivals in the world. I just went to the world premiere of the Nelson Mandela movie ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, which was a great honour. I can’t wait for the next week! It’s very fun time to be here: there’s a real buzz in the city.

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