Alumnus of the Month - Mari-Lynne Sinnott

Mari-Lynne Sinnott is a two-time graduate of Memorial University. In 2009 she was a proud recipient of a Bachelor of Arts with honours in political science and French. From there she entered Memorial’s Medical School, and graduated in 2009 with her MD. She finished her family medicine residency in June 2015, and has been doing locums in rural Newfoundland and the remote Northwest Territories. She has now happily moved back to St. John’s permanently to open a clinic in downtown St. John’s that focuses on women’s health and LGBTQ health and to also work in conjunction with Eastern Health and the provincial government on the Downtown Healthcare Collaborative: a network of clinics that work within community organizations to provide inclusive and complete primary care to the marginalized populations of the city. In addition to all of this, she holds a part-time faculty position with the Family Medicine Department at Memorial University and is involved in teaching both medical students and residents.

How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your undergraduate degree?

The decision to go to MUN was a combination of two main things: financial practicality, and being a sook.The low tuition rate was a significant draw as a young person coming from a middle-income family, but I wasn’t ready to leave Newfoundland! I was definitely ready for leaving home in Gander, but staying within the province and close to family and friends was really important to me – and still is! Once a sook, always a sook.

What drew you to do a degree in political science?

I actually started off doing a psychology degree, and my roommate was doing political science. In the evenings we would do homework together and I would always be so much more interested in his lectures and papers than my own. So I signed up for one political science course as an elective, and then that was it – I changed my major and switched completely within a semester. I loved learning how and why the world works in the way it does, and forming opinions about that and ideas on how to make it work better! I’ve always been a real advocate and social justice warrior, and a political science degree allowed me to inform and refine that; to help understand society and people, in a way that could allow me to create some positive contribution.

Do any particular memories stand out from your time here as an undergraduate/graduate student?

So many!! I remember some really wonderful seminar courses about human rights and women in politics that put the fire in my belly that got me to where I am today. I remember the strong and amazing women I volunteered with at the Women’s Resource Centre, and the work we did to create safe space for women. I remember some really awesome Winter Carnival fun and open mic nights.

You were a participant in one of the first ArtsWorks programs – what did you take away from that experience?

The ArtsWorks program came about at a time when I was really struggling with what the future would hold for me. Although I loved every minute of my arts degree, I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, or what I COULD do with it. The ArtsWorks program taught me to identify and harness the strengths that my arts degree had given me, and to market myself. It gave me confidence and pride in my education.That’s what enabled me to do the MCAT and apply for medical school, something I had dreamed about as a teenager, but had essentially let go because I thought that my arts degree had set me down a completely different path. I learned from the ArtsWorks program that I could do medicine, or law, or anything I wanted because the skills and abilities I had developed from my degree had prepared me to go after whatever I wanted out of my life. And here I am!

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

In my first year of medicine, we had clinical skills sessions for one half day per week. This was essentially a class on learning how to talk to people about their health issues and social circumstances. This was the setting under which I thrived. I knew how to talk to people; I understood the human experience and could relate to people as more than just their disease or illness, and connect the dots between the disease and the rest of their lives and understand the larger context. I also had knowledge of community resources and how these psychosocial supports are just as important as any test or medicine we can prescribe. I did really well in that course, where the rest of first year was a struggle to keep up with the rest of my cohort, who had degrees in biochemistry, biology, and neuroscience. At the end of that year, my clinical skills preceptors sat down with us individually for evaluations. I remember them complimenting my clinical skills, but moreover I remember one of them saying to me: “Don’t ever lose that. Don’t ever lose that understanding and appreciation of the psychosocial circumstances that affect the illness, because those are the determinants of health.”

She told me that the rest of my medical training would be more heavily based on the science of medicine, but that this stuff was the art of it, and this was the stuff that people forget when they start getting into the science. She warned me – and I promised to heed it, and thought I would. And a couple years later I realized that somewhere along the line of my training I was starting to forget it, just like she warned me. The long days of rounds and nights of call, and hours and hours of studying for exams had taken over. So I have worked really hard to get that back, and to always approach patients with the understanding of their social determinants of health and to appreciate the context of the patient experience as more than just the disease. That piece of advice stays with me every day; it shaped me and my current practice to where I am today, and I carry it with me every day, in every patient interaction. And I plan to pass it on to as many learners as I can, and hope that they don’t ever let go it!

It might surprise people to learn that you earned an undergraduate degree in political science before entering medical school. Can you comment on how your background in the social sciences prepared you for medical school (or opposed to having a pure science background in a subject such as biology, for example)?

I think my story about my best piece of advice sums it up well. My arts degree gave me a larger world view, an understanding of the shades of grey we all live within, and the ability to communicate with people from all walks of life. While I do wish that I had done a couple science courses to prepare for the fundamentals of medical school, I don’t for one second regret my arts degree because it’s allowed me to be a physician with a deeper understanding of humanity.

What in your opinion is something the province of NL can do right now for marginalized members of our society?

From a health care perspective, I think that access to quality mental health and addictions care is such an important thing we can provide to our whole province, but especially for our marginalized populations. But with consideration of the social determinants of health, I think that one of the biggest problems facing many of our marginalized members is lack of access to housing. This is something that causes a ripple effect in terms of health and quality of life outcomes, and if we want to improve our society as a whole, we have to start with ensuring these basics rights.

In what ways has studying social science affected your world view? What do you say to those who question the value of an arts degree?

An arts degree can take you anywhere. Take a look at some of the most successful people in our society – arts degrees abound. I wouldn’t be who I am, or where I am without it.

What would people be most surprised to learn about you?

I have a bit of a guilty pleasure for rap music. Anyone who goes on a road trip with me is subjected to my rap sing-a-longs – but what goes on in the car stays in the car!

What advice would you give a student who is unsure of what to study?

Take your time. Take different courses. Explore your interests and follow them.

What’s your favourite place to visit?

Although the east coast has my heart forever, I love visiting the west coast: Vancouver, Seattle, and San Francisco are some of my favorite places. I love the weather, the people, the scenery, and of course the food! very chance I get for a vacation I try to explore somewhere different and see as many new things as possible.

What are you reading and listening to these days?

I’m trying to make a point of reading more non-medicine books since finishing residency and getting out into practice. Right now I am reading Mindy Kaling’s “Why Not Me?” and loving it. I’m also still hooked on Adele’s new album – she can do no wrong.

What are you most looking forward to within the next year?

I’m excited about growing my practice and hopefully being able to be part of a change in primary care provision for our marginalized populations. But over the last few years I’ve become really aware of the importance of work-life balance and self-care, so I’m also looking forward to taking more vacations, reading more books, and getting to spend more time trying new recipes in my kitchen!

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