Curtis Leclerc becomes first Northern Medical Program student to pursue MD/PhD program

Curtis Leclerc will undertake a combined MD/PhD degree, a unique seven-year program in the UBC Faculty of Medicine that allows students to combine their medical school experience with intensive scientific training.

September 8, 2023
Two people stand outside in front of a two story building
Northern Medical Program student Curtis Leclerc (at right) with Dr. Rob Olson at BC Cancer – Prince George.

With a keen desire to improve rural health, Curtis Leclerc is set to blaze a new trail as the first student to pursue a combined MD/PhD degree at the UBC Northern Medical Program (NMP).

Jointly administered by the Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Graduate Studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC), the seven-year MD/PhD program is designed for students who want to become clinician-scientists. 

“I was inspired to pursue an MD/PhD due to my passion for medicine and research,” says Leclerc, who joined the NMP as a student in fall of 2022. “Growing up in The Pas, a small Northern community in Manitoba, I witnessed the disparities between rural and urban settings, which helped fuel my desire to pursue medicine and to make a difference in underserved areas.”

In addition to fulfilling the requirements of the regular undergraduate MD curriculum, MD/PhD students also undertake graduate level coursework as required by their chosen field of research. The unique program is directed by Dr. Torsten Nielsen, a clinician-scientist and pathologist at UBC and Vancouver General Hospital.

Leclerc’s PhD focus will be in interdisciplinary oncology and cancer care. 

He will be supervised by Dr. Rob Olson, NMP professor and radiation oncologist and research lead at BC Cancer – Prince George. Dr. Olson is leading an ongoing phase III international trial titled SABR-COMET-3. Stereotactic Ablative Radiotherapy, also known as SABR, is a form of high-precision cancer therapy that delivers substantially higher doses of radiation to tumour sites in just one or a few treatment sessions.

“I am looking forward to mentoring the next generation of clinical trial experts,” says Dr. Olson, who is also division head of Radiation Oncology and Developmental Radiotherapeutics, Dept. of Surgery, UBC Faculty of Medicine and an affiliate UNBC faculty member. “I am especially excited that Curtis is situated in the North, where his work can influence his medical student colleagues, and highlight the importance of clinical trial research and the ability to lead clinical trials from Northern B.C.”

“I am excited to be working with Dr. Olson, who has extensive expertise in specific cancer treatment outcomes and clinical trials,” explains Leclerc. “Our research together will aim to investigate the outcomes of patients receiving specialized radiotherapy treatments, with a particular emphasis on factors such as quality of life after treatment and the utility of using biomarkers to predict outcomes post-SABR treatment.

Being able to carry out his MD undergraduate and PhD studies together in the north was a key factor for Curtis in his decision to pursue the combined program.

“It was really important for me to stay in northern B.C. and do research up here,” notes Curtis. “This area reminds me so much of where I grew up. Being in the north will provide an opportunity for me to address healthcare disparities directly and contribute to improving access and outcomes in rural and remote communities. 

“I believe that by pursuing my MD/PhD studies in the north, I can make a difference in the lives of individuals who face unique challenges in accessing quality healthcare.”

Curtis looks forward to one day becoming a physician who balances direct patient care with ongoing research initiatives dedicated to health service improvement.

“Developing a strong background in research methodology will give me an opportunity to create positive changes in health care delivery. I am inspired by what Dr. Olson does as both a physician and a clinical trial researcher. I would also like to find a balance between medicine and research in my future practice. 

“When you combine both, you're building a bridge and bringing in perspectives from each side, seeing where the discrepancies are and then pursuing the research to help in further developing and advancing care. That's what I hope to do, and I think that's where the value lies in having clinician-scientists. I feel that this is a really important part of developing our health system.”

Dr. Olson is looking forward to taking on this new supervisory role with Curtis in early September and further building on health research success in the North to date.

“I’m proud to be the first supervisor of an MD/PhD student from Northern B.C. When the UBC Northern Medical Program first started at UNBC, the emphasis was on training excellent clinical doctors, and as we’ve grown, we now place an emphasis on also training academic physicians who can lead research as soon as they graduate. The possibility that this will grow Northern academic clinical work in the North is exciting!”

Curtis will complete his second year at the Northern Medical Program over this coming fall and winter and then undertake three full years of academic research, at the end of which he will defend his PhD thesis. He will then finish his final two of years medical school with the NMP and graduate in the spring of 2029.

“I'm just really thrilled to have this opportunity to study here in Prince George and learn under Rob's supervision, and also just to be up here for six more years! Medicine is definitely the field that I'm supposed to be in, and I feel lucky because I found something that I'm really passionate about.”