Making connections

By Emily Leighton, MA'13
What happens when you throw a group of varsity athletes, each highly competitive with a set of perfectly honed skills, into a friendly game of capture the flag? Perhaps images of carnage and mayhem are coming to mind.
It’s a question Sara Matovic, BSc’15, MSc Candidate, knows something about. As president of the Mustang Athlete Student Council (MASC), she helps organize social events to bring student athletes together outside their individual competitive pursuits. And the emphasis is on fun.
“We definitely split up the cross country runners for capture the flag and the baseball players for dodgeball,” she said with a grin. “But at the end of the day, everyone is really coming out to have a good time.”
With Matovic at the helm, MASC is also working to establish an athlete mentorship program and community outreach initiatives on campus and across the city.
The bubbly 23-year-old Robarts trainee boasts an extremely successful rowing career at Western. She rowed with the team for five years throughout her undergraduate studies, serving as captain of the women’s lightweight squad for three.
This year she stepped back from the team to concentrate on her master’s program.
“Rowing is still such a deep part of me,” she said. “The team was my extended family, my community.”
For her athletic prowess, Matovic received a Purple Blanket from Western in 2015, recognizing her considerable achievements in rowing at the provincial and national levels.
Born in a small town in Serbia, Matovic came to Canada with her family at the age of three.
It’s an experience that sticks with her, as watching her parents adapt to a new culture and way of life taught her the importance of personal connections.
“I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities thanks to connections I’ve made along the way,” she said.
This approach helped her link up with current supervisor, Wataru Inoue, PhD, for her master’s program in neuroscience. Browsing online, she came across an announcement about his recruitment to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and Robarts. An email exchange followed and the connection was made.
With an interest in the brain and behaviour, Matovic jumped at the opportunity to help set up Inoue’s lab at Robarts upon his arrival in July 2014.
Her current project looks at the effect of stress on the brain using chronic stress models. More specifically, Matovic is investigating how chronic stress causes neurons to change their function.
She applies a well-known 21-day chronic stress paradigm, which is known to functionally elicit two distinct responses in animal models: a habituation, or adjustment, to a stressful situation and a sensitized reaction. She then investigates whether there are perhaps two different populations of neurons that are responsible for eliciting these functionally distinct responses.
For Matovic, understanding stress at this fundamental level is essential. “Stress is so common in our society,” she said. “It’s an underlying factor for several mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.”
Studying such a relatable subject results in amusing interactions with her peers. “Other grad students find out that we study chronic stress and offer to be participants,” she said with a laugh.
Matovic’s penchant for making personal connections will be useful as she considers shifting to a more clinical focus. She finds the field of psychiatry particularly appealing.
With the possibility of medical school in her future, Matovic appreciates the training she is receiving at Robarts. “I have mentors all around me here,” she said. “We collaborate, we work together. It’s a great place to be.”