Multi-talented student hopes to write new chapter in neuroscience

Liam McCoy writes everything from fiction to computer code. Now, the winner of UAlberta’s top undergrad scholarship wants to “invent something revolutionary.”


(Edmonton) Liam McCoy has penned a sci-fi novel, composed and performed a poem for his high school’s Remembrance Day ceremony, captained a hockey team and written computer code, so when it comes to choosing what to study in university, the options seem limitless.

But for the 18-year-old, there is just one choice: science. In particular, biomedical research. “I was always the kid asking what and why,” said McCoy, who enters the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science this fall to study neuroscience at the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute. “I see all these people who make tremendous medical advances and I think with science you can do so much good. You can solve one problem and that can open up an entire field. By finding answers, you can help millions of people.”

“You can solve one problem and that can open up an entire field. By finding answers, you can help millions of people.”

That driving curiosity and a record of academic excellence have earned the St. Albert resident the President’s Centenary Citation, the U of A’s most generous undergraduate scholarship, valued at $50,000. McCoy is among top faculty, students and staff being recognized at the U of A’s annual Celebrate! Teaching. Learning. Research. event being held at the Myer Horowitz Theatre Sept. 23. Everyone is welcome to attend.

McCoy teases both his right and left brain by dabbling in fiction, poetry—he is currently seeking to publish a 400-page novel he wrote between the ages of 15 and 17—and most recently, writing a program aimed at teaching a computer how to teach itself to play a perfect game of tick-tack-toe. In short, he just loves to learn for the sake of learning. “I’ve always wanted to know more about the world.”

Neuroscience—the study of the nervous system—holds particular fascination for McCoy, who one day hopes to “invent something revolutionary” through research. “The brain is largely uncharted territory and there are so many unanswered questions, ranging from how we think to Parkinson’s disease and spinal injuries. Neuroscience will be a good jumping-off point for me.”

McCoy chose the U of A for its strong connections to biomedical research and the community, through leading institutions such as the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute, the U of A Hospital and the National Institute for Nanotechnology. As he begins his studies, McCoy is excited about the “vibe” at the U of A, noting “there’s a lot of leading stuff going on.” During a visit to campus as a thank-you for a high-school fundraiser, McCoy was impressed by some of the new technology he saw.

“In addition to being my local university, it’s a leading university that draws scientific minds from all over the world.”

“In addition to being my local university, it’s a leading university that draws scientific minds from all over the world.”

There’s also a family tradition of attending the U of A—one McCoy is proud to uphold. His parents, grandparents, a brother and assorted cousins, aunts and uncles have all attended “and nobody had anything but the best to say about the university.”

McCoy is excited about delving into classes that will bring him to a new level of learning. “I’m looking forward to getting into higher-level concepts and meeting like-minded people in class and in clubs on campus. From what I’ve seen, the university has a strong sense of community and there seems to be so much happening.”

He plans to try to balance his studies with sports and volunteer work that focuses on some kind of global initiative. “I feel very privileged just for having been born where I am and being in a situation where we can do so much good just by being Canadians. The opportunities we have for fundraising and awareness here mean you can be a voice for someone who doesn’t really have one.”

McCoy offered thanks for his accomplishments to his family, teachers, coaches and other mentors, “everyone I’ve collaborated with on leadership and volunteer events. I’ve had help along the way and can’t take sole credit.”

Receiving this year’s centenary scholarship has added to McCoy’s sense of gratitude for the advantages he has. “This gives me the resources to focus on my studies and it gives me the option of taking an unpaid summer research internship so that I can stay working directly in the field of science.

“It’s a tremendous honour to win this scholarship. I want to thank the selection committee and the university and offer a promise of sorts,” McCoy said. “A scholarship like this comes with an obligation. By selecting someone, they place a lot of faith in the recipient, and I want them to know that faith is not misplaced. I hope to use this funding to do some awesome things—at the very least, to learn the skills and knowledge required to do amazing things in the future.”