Ophthalmology Resident Anne Xuan-Lan Nguyen earns prestigious scholarship to Oxford University

When Anne Xuan-Lan Nguyen got the phone call to inform her that she had earned a 2024 Rhodes Scholarship, she was having supper with her family in Montreal.

“My parents don’t often get really emotional, but they were just so happy,” says Nguyen, currently an Ophthalmology Resident at the University of Toronto following her graduation from McGill this past spring. “My dad had tears in his eyes.”

The Rhodes Scholarship is the world’s preeminent and oldest graduate fellowship, based at the University of Oxford since 1903.

It is fitting that Nguyen, McGill’s 148th Rhodes Scholar, got to share the big moment with her mom and dad as they are the first people she mentions when congratulated about the honour.

“They’ve always been my pillars, my example of how, if you are dedicated enough, anything is feasible,” she says. “They are one of the main reasons I’m in medicine.”

Both of Nguyen’s parents came to Canada as refugees from Vietnam. Her mother was 12 and arrived with an aunt and uncle because her father was in a Vietnam prison during the war. Working part-time jobs, she put herself through school and became a family physician.

Nguyen’s father was 16 when he came to Canada, one of 10 children being raised by a single mother. Undaunted by the challenges he faced, he became a cardiologist.

“My parents have always pushed me to dream better, dream more,” says Nguyen. “Especially when it comes to the role of women in medicine and leadership.”

Seminal experience

While she was attending Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, Nguyen considered a career in journalism. A dedicated volunteer with a passion for advocacy, she thought journalism was a good platform from which to expose social inequities.

However, her volunteer work with Plein Air à Plein Cœur, a camp that provides free summer vacations for children from vulnerable families and marginalized communities, inspired a shift in her focus.

“It was an experience that forever changed my trajectory,” she says. “I saw the range of challenges these children faced – from accessing educational opportunities, to mental health challenges, and so many social issues as well. I was convinced I wanted to become a social pediatrician.”

After completing McGill’s Med-P one-year preparatory program designed exclusively for CEGEP students, Nguyen was unable to secure a pediatrics summer research bursary. Instead, on the suggestion of several mentors, she applied, and received, a bursary in ophthalmological research under the mentorship of Dr. Pierre Lachapelle in the Child Health and Human Development Program.

Looking for clinical opportunities, Nguyen also worked closely with Dr. Albert Wu at the Stanford Byers Eye Institute and Dr. Isabelle Hardy, chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Montreal.

“I owe a lot to those early experiences. My first exposure to vision sciences was with Dr. Lachapelle and it was such a great intro to research. It really piqued my interest in the field,” she says. “That was just confirmed with the clinical work I did with Dr. Wu and Dr. Hardy.”

In particular, Nguyen was struck by a homeless woman whose vision was severely impaired. After a fairly short and straightforward cataract surgery, the woman was able to see again. “That moment really affected me. To see the difference ophthalmology can make in the quality of someone’s life was something I will always remember.”

A lifetime of service

While much of her time these days is occupied with her residency, Nguyen has a strong background in public service and advocacy.

Nguyen was already being recognized for her community engagement in 2016, when she was presented with the Lieutenant Governor’s Medal. Issued by the Lieutenant-gouverneur du Québec, it is the highest provincial honour for public service.

Other awards and honours for community service include the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame/Great-West Life, London Life and Canada Life Scholarship (2018); the TD full-ride National Scholarship for Community Leadership (2018); the Governor General of Canada’s Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers (2019); the Women’s Y Foundation of Montreal Inspirationelle Award (2023); and the McGill Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences’ CHAP Graduation Prize for Community Engagement (2023).

Diverse, informative experiences

From 2016 to 2021, Nguyen was a member of the Conseil jeunesse de Montréal, where she advised the mayor and elected officials on youth issues.

“It was a very informative experience,” Nguyen says. “I was 17 and I was just learning how to communicate with elected officials. I was discussing youth priorities, whether it was lodging or circular economy or mobility or homelessness.”

This experience catalyzed her to join the Carrefour jeunesse-emploi Montréal Centre-Ville as its youngest board member, where she guided the organization’s initiatives aimed at enhancing the socio-professional integration of young Montrealers for six years.

During the COVID pandemic, she was part of a group of McGill medical students who rallied their peers to volunteer their time to help frontline healthcare workers by doing everything from childcare to pet sitting to grocery shopping.

As a dedicated volunteer for DocTocToc, founded by McGill pediatrician Dr. Rislaine Benkelfat, Nguyen played a key role in organizing a pop-up clinic during the second wave of the pandemic. This clinic delivered essential health services, including vaccinations and check-ups, to one of the neighborhoods in Montreal most profoundly impacted by COVID-19.

Also during the pandemic, Nguyen founded the Canadian Ophthalmology Student Interest Group, a national organization that provides educational resources; facilitates connections between medical students, residents, and educational institutions; and supports student research and advocacy efforts.

“I connected with student leads across the country, and we created this safe space and started launching initiatives,” she says. “One of the initiatives we developed that I’m very proud of is the Canadian Ophthalmology Mentorship Program – I’m actually a resident advisor now.” The program received a 2023 McGill Learner Teaching Innovation Award.

Medicine as advocacy

Since her first year of university, Nguyen has been pivotal in building the Community Health and Social Medicine (CHASM) Incubator, a key factor in McGill’s recognition as Canada’s top medical doctoral university in 2020 and 2021 by MacLeans. Alongside her brother, David-Dan Nguyen (MDCM 2022), and an interdisciplinary team of McGill students, they led this incubator supporting over 16 student ventures addressing health inequities in marginalized Montreal communities. Backed by McGill Global Health Programs, CHASM empowers students to develop community health solutions that intersect with social innovation and social justice.

CHASM is the kind of experience Nguyen relishes because it combines two of her passions, community-based medicine, and healthcare innovation.

When asked what her focus will be at Oxford, Nguyen laughs. “That’s yet to be determined,” she says. “I’m interested in the intersection of vision care, academia/research, and policy.

“The Rhodes Scholarship is an incredible gift and I’m going to make the most of it,” she says. “It’s always been my duty to give back to the community, but now even more so.”