Meet Dalhousie’s 88th Rhodes Scholar

Biology major Michael Mackley wants to combine medical research, music at Oxford

This story has been updated since initially published.

Rhodes Scholar Michael Mackley will graduate from Dalhousie this spring with a major in biology and a minor in biochemistry and molecular biology. (Photo: Ian Froese)

What was the hardest part of the months-long process Michael Mackley undertook to earn a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship?

If you ask the Dalhousie biology student suddenly thrust into the public spotlight following his award, it was keeping the secret to himself.

“You can’t tell your friends, they’ll tweet. You can’t tell your aunts and uncles, they’ll go on Facebook. You could only tell your immediate family, that’s it,” Mackley recalls of his more than 24 hours of silence. “That was so hard.”

When the news broke early Monday morning, the 21-year-old Dartmouth native made some early morning phone calls. Think 6 a.m. early.

“I called all my friends who were asleep and they answered the phone and was like, ‘Michael, what do you want?’ he said. “I said, ‘I won the Rhodes,’ and then they were really quiet and then they screamed.

“It was exciting.”

They were elated for good reason. Mackley has joined one of the most illustrious fellowships in the world’s education sector. He received the Rhodes Scholarship, a renowned honour offering an all-expenses-paid ticket to Oxford University in the U.K., for two years to pursue postgraduate study, with an option for a third. It is valued at over $100,000.

“I considered it such a long shot. I never really considered myself Rhodes-material, and I still think they made a mistake,” he said from his lab Monday afternoon. “But I’m going to show up next fall and represent.”

Mackley becomes the 88th Rhodes Scholar in Dalhousie’s history. He is one of 11 Canadians and 83 students worldwide to comprise this year’s Rhodes class.

Genetic interests

The fourth-year honours biology student has fostered a passion for genetic research during his post-secondary career. After initially focusing on marine populations, Mackley today examines genetic diseases in humans. His lab hopes to enhance the treatment of individually rare ‘orphan diseases.’

Mackley’s list of academic successes is long—the dean’s list, research grants and scholarships for top marks—but the breadth of his extra-curricular commitments are as remarkable. He is a part of various musical ensembles, as a singer and musician, coaches flag football, volunteers with seriously ill children and tutors neighbourhood students.

Rhodes prospects are judged on scholarly excellence, integrity of character, community work and leadership ability.

In Mackley’s application essay, he wrote about uniting his passions of medical research and music on the other side of the Atlantic. His male acapella ensemble, TestosterTones, has performed in venues as varied as libraries and an ambulance factory to bring a smile to medical patients.

“I talked about my music and my love of medical research and sort of how I wanted to bridge the gap between the two and how I wanted to play a role in this next era of medical research,” he said.

A positive attitude

Mackley applied for the award this summer at the prodding of his honours supervisor, Karen Bedard in Dal’s department of pathology.

He worked with her last summer on a federally funded research project to look at the gene mutation responsible for rare genetic disorders. He stayed on with the lab this semester.

“What really sets Michael apart from the crowd is his positive attitude,” she said. “He injects a lot of enthusiasm and positivity in the work while still maintaining humour and professionalism. He’s the kind of person that you would want representing your organization or team.”

The budding clinician wants to return to the Maritimes after graduating from a medical research program at Oxford, likely for medical school purposes.

But, before that, he’ll enjoy this moment.

“I keep opening my phone to see the email from the Rhodes Trust and I’m pinching myself,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Update: Dec. 3, 2013: Removed an off-hand quote near the end of the story which, in agreement with Michael Mackley, was not part of the interview.