By: Michele Leblanc

Peabody River, NH, USA

When I was young, my sister and I spent our days exploring the forest nestled in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. She taught me the best ways to climb the enormous elm trees and how to carefully navigate the slippery stones across the Peabody River without being swept away by the current. My sister ingrained in me a craving for adventure and a drive of curiosity, teaching me to never take anything at face value. I often wondered how I could harness my excitement and curiosity about discovering the world in a meaningful way, always trying to match my sister’s ability to push boundaries and fearlessly take a leap. In the Spatial Determinants of Health lab, I am not only given, but also encouraged to take advantage of opportunities to adventure, to be curious, and to be unapologetically unique.

It all began last spring, as I neared the end of a challenging first year of university. I came home to an email in my inbox, offering the opportunity to apply for a research internship at Carleton University. I began researching professors in my department, sending out emails to those whose work I found interesting. After receiving a few responses, including one professor who discouraged me from even applying, I set up a meeting with Dr. Paul Peters, a rural researcher in the Department of Health Sciences. As soon as I walked into Dr. Peters’ office, my nervousness faded – before me sat a man wearing socks and Birkenstocks, with a cup of tea steaming on his desk. You could say I, as a New Englander, felt quite at home.

During our meeting, not only did Dr. Peters welcome me onto his team, but he

FREE Rangers in Storuman, Sweden

deemed it necessary to send me with his students to Sweden in a few short weeks. Of course, I accepted his offer. I’m not sure exactly what Dr. Peters saw in me, but I am forever grateful that he decided I would be a good fit for Free Range. Thus began an incredible whirlwind of a year with opportunities and challenges I couldn’t have ever imagined.

For the rest of the summer and throughout my second year of university, I was lucky enough to continue working with Dr. Peters, discovering more about rural areas both in Canada and across the globe. In December of 2018, I travelled to Burra, Australia with our team. Not only did I fulfill a life-long dream of travelling to Australia, but I also truly understood the importance of “dirt research” in a field trip to Copley (to be discussed in a future post) and how to embrace my position as a “Free Ranger”.

FREE Rangers in Southern Australia

To finish an incredible year, I was given the opportunity to present my research at a conference in Georgia in April. With Dr. Peters’ guidance and encouragement, I was also able to secure a spot to do a semester abroad next year in Adelaide, Australia – making myself the first Health Sciences student ever to go abroad.In the last year, I have been immersed in a whole new world, both literally and figuratively, through the work of the Spatial Determinants of Health Lab and the Free-Range program, all thanks to Dr. Peters. My journey began in May of 2018, two weeks after accepting my DSRI, in Northern Sweden at the Free-Range conference. Here, after a few weeks of meaningful conversations and experiences, I came to realize that people from rural areas have a different outlook than those who grow up in metropolitan areas. I had found my “people”.

A walk at dusk in Burra, AUS

Since I joined the Spatial Determinants of Health lab, I have grown an exceptional amount as a student, as a researcher, and as a person. Dr. Peters truly understands the importance of leading a fulfilling life and of embracing adventure, always pushing his students to see the bigger picture. With the opportunities he has given me, I have learned so many valuable lessons, in and out of academia. Now, I recognize curiosity and passion within myself that I once only recognized in my sister. Through the SDoH lab, I have the opportunity to forge my own path, to satisfy my curiosity, and to harness my unorthodox way of seeing the world. As I begin my second year of contributing to our lab, I look back with gratitude and awe at all that has happened in one short year. I look forward to contributing to the growth and development of our lab and of Free Range, and to seeing where this path will lead me next.