By the time Cailyn McKay was in her senior year in high school and most of her friends were looking at post-secondary schools, she still had no idea what she wanted to pursue. Even when she started her first year at Western in the medical sciences program, she quickly realized it wasn’t her passion.
She knew she liked chemistry and biology far more than biochemistry, so she decided to go for a double major in what she enjoyed most. Four years later, McKay is set to mark the completion of one chapter and start another as she continues her passion for learning and research.
“Right now, I am looking into chemical ecology. I took (biology professor) Jeremy McNeil’s class and it was the perfect tie-in between biology and chemistry,” said McKay. She is one of approximately 8,000 students graduating this spring and joining nearly 330,000 Western alumni from 160 countries.
In the fall, McKay will return to Western to pursue a master’s in biology and continue her research on pheromones, looking at how global warming and climate change can affect them. Pheromones are chemicals animals secrete from their body that alter the behaviour of another animal.
One thing McKay discovered while studying chemical ecology and doing research is that academia speaks to her. “I do like academia, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I came back and did more. I also like conservation and there’s a lot of things you can do with pheromone research.”
Science and research were not the only things that filled McKay’s plate through her undergrad years. As a student-athlete, McKay was constantly balancing academic and sports excellence. A member of the Mustang women’s rugby team since her first year, she had to learn from the get-go how to effectively manage her time between class work and rugby practice and games.
It was no easy feat, but when there is a system of support in place designed to help student-athletes like McKay succeed, the battle is already half-won.
“The university runs a time management session for first-year student-athletes. And that taught me how to schedule my time,” McKay said.
Since becoming a Mustang athlete, McKay has always felt supported, never feeling pressured to choose one passion over the other – her studies or rugby. She has always been able to excel at both, in part because of the academic support program Western has put in place for student-athletes, she said.
A study hall, for example, is always available to offer help to students who need it, and McKay took advantage of that.
“There are people there that can help students with their studies, like other athletes, or people who are trained to help with courses. So I thought, ‘good, they do care that I succeed.’ And I really liked that.”
McKay also benefitted from student mentors, older student-athletes helping younger ones get through the adjustment phase of starting a new school, juggling classes and navigating the ups and downs of life of a student-athlete.
Paying it forward, McKay has become a student mentor and a peer helper, helping new athletes with their studies and – with the benefit of experience – providing guidance and tips on time management and balancing studies and sports.
One piece of advice she has for new students is to take advantage of study hall and other supports available to them because they are designed to help them succeed.
And sometimes, a bit of motivation goes a long way. “I’m the first person on my team who says, ‘Guys, if you don’t pass, you can’t play. So please, please, please focus. You’re student-athletes, which means student comes first.’ And our coaches will press for that.”
McKay is proud of what the women’s rugby team has accomplished, despite the challenges of the pandemic. And some of her fondest memories from Western had been with her team. It’s almost like a second family, she said.
“With the team, there’s always somebody there. We always have team dinners. And in the fall, because you’re practising every day, it’s nice to have people there who know what you’re going through, people who get it,” McKay said.
When she comes back in the fall to do her master’s she is looking forward to continuing to play for the Mustang women’s rugby team.
But for now, she has big plans for the summer: a vegetable garden.