Jan. 8, 2018

Passion for anthropology fuels student's interest in global conversation on inclusivity

Ultra-marathoner Ian MacNairn is first UCalgary student to earn one of 30 spots at exclusive international conference

Ian MacNairn’s passion for sport and anthropology has taken him around the world, from running an ultra-marathon in Andorra to field work in Turkey and Romania. Last month, the University of Calgary doctoral student added Malaysia to the list, as an attendee of the Association of Commonwealth Universities’ international conference on promoting respect and understanding.

The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) is a non-profit network of more than 500 member universities — including the University of Calgary — in more than 40 countries. The exclusive conference was open to only 30 students worldwide, and this was the first time a UCalgary student earned a spot.

Sport meets science

MacNairn, an ultra-running athlete, has spent his entire post-secondary career at UCalgary, starting as an undergrad in 2005, where he discovered a keen interest in research and anthropology of sport. After earning his Bachelor of Health Sciences, he immediately followed that with a Master of Arts in Social and Cultural Anthropology. Today, he’s in his fourth year of the combined MD/PhD Leaders in Medicine program and preparing for medical school in the coming years.

Since adolescence, he has maintained a strong interest in Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), and his training in cultural and social studies, along with his travel and athletic pursuits, have only reinforced this.

“The endurance I’ve built through my study and physical training could really be applied in a setting where you’re practising resource-limited medicine,” he says. “You have to be really tough in a sense — and not just physically and mentally tough; you have to be creative as well.”

Having benefited from a number of scholarships throughout his schooling, MacNairn is further motivated to give back. “I’m grateful to have the opportunity to practise medicine, but also to have the support from my mentors, supervisor and the Leaders in Medicine Program to do it, so I know I want to give back through my training and ongoing work."

Ian MacNairn with Susan Barker, UCalgary's vice-provost (student experience). Barker supported MacNairn’s application to attend the Association of Commonwealth Universities’ international conference on promoting respect and understanding. University of Calgary photo

Ian MacNairn with Susan Barker, UCalgary's vice-provost (student experience).

University of Calgary photo

Anthropology in practice

In the spirit of the ACU’s mission to promote excellence in higher education, attendees of the 2018 conference examined what can be done to create tolerant and inclusive communities in their institutions. With his background in anthropology, MacNairn was well suited for the experience.

“One of the main reasons I was chosen by UCalgary as their candidate is my experience in cultural anthropology with my understanding and study of concepts such as cultural relativism and holism — understanding that while there are differences among all cultures and societies, they’re not differences in quality,” he says.

As a scientific discipline, MacNairn believes anthropology is very well situated to already understand and respect diversity.

“We had the great fortune of learning from and working alongside one another, providing real-life examples of initiatives working towards bolstering respect of diversity within institutions and beyond,” he says of the conference. “As an anthropological researcher, it was a great opportunity because, in a sense, it’s anthropology practices in real life.”

Susan Barker, the university’s vice-provost (student experience), supported MacNairn’s application and sees him as the ideal ambassador for UCalgary. “As an anthropologist and future physician, Ian made great contributions to this conference,” she says. “He is a brilliant communicator and deeply passionate about social change.”

Demonstrating respect and diversity

As part of the application process, MacNairn shared how the University of Calgary demonstrates respect and diversity, citing the Q Centre, SU clubs, and Faith and Spirituality Centre, which recognize and provide safe spaces for diverse community members.

“It helps create an environment that’s very inclusive,” he says of the university’s diversity programming. “I see this conference as being important in a broader sense in that universities are, by nature, very diverse and welcoming places.”

Barker shares this sentiment. “It was a fabulous opportunity for Ian but also for the University of Calgary to engage in deep and meaningful conversations about mutual understanding between different faiths, beliefs and cultures,” she says. “Through the Faith and Spirituality Kaleidoscope project, we have explored what this means in the university and the city of Calgary, and the ACU conference provided an opportunity for a more global conversation.”

During his four days at Heriot-Watt University in Kuala Lumpur, MacNairn worked with the 29 other attendees on recognizing, understanding and developing respect and diversity, both in general and within their institutions. It’s unique training that can’t be found in the classroom and will help inform his research and clinical practice.

“More important than that, it’ll inform me as a human being,” he says. “I want to have the technical skills and professional capabilities, but at the end of the day, I want to be remembered as a good person. And this is an amazing opportunity to get to develop that within myself, while also representing UCalgary and Canada.”