How I Made It

Maike van Niekerk, Psychiatry Researcher & Charity Founder

Maike van Niekerk is a Newfoundland-born PhD student and founder of the award-winning charity, Katrin's Karepackage. Here, she tells FLARE how she made it

maike van neikerk smiles in forest with yellow necklace

(Photo: Rachel McGrath)

Maike van Niekerk; @maikevanniekerk

 How do you describe your job to your family?

On a day-to-day basis, I do a mixture of research and charitable work. When I was 15, my mother passed away from breast cancer, so the similarity is that both aim to improve the overall psychological well-being of cancer patients. I created my award-winning charitable program, Katrin’s Karepackage, in 2014 in partnership with the Canadian Cancer Society. It’s named in memory of my mother,  and it offsets travel costs for cancer patients in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Since its inception, Katrin’s Karepackage has raised over $170,000.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

After completing high school in Newfoundland, I moved to Nova Scotia to attend Dalhousie University, where I completed a cancer-focused bachelor of ccience in nursing. Currently I’m completing a PhD in psychiatry at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. I became interested in cancer-focused nursing and psychiatry after seeing the way in which nurses provided compassionate and empathetic care to my mother before she passed away.

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

Being awarded a Schulich Leadership Scholarship and a Rhodes Scholarship. They have fully financed my undergraduate and graduate degrees, which has allowed me to dedicate a large portion of my time to founding Katrin’s Karepackage and advocating for cancer patients. I know it’s a privilege that many other students are not afforded.

What would you say has been your most significant setback, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

Losing my mother when I was in grade 10 completely flipped my world upside down—her death was unexpected and I was relatively young and immature. It resulted in me having to grow up quite quickly, and it made me search for my own sense of purpose and determination that I previously had looked to my mother for. I also learned that there is no uniform way to deal with the loss of a loved one. For me, I was able to find a new ‘normal’ in my mother’s absence by becoming connected with other people in my community affected by cancer. They inspire me every day.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

“It is better not to share your opinions. It’s always better to remain neutral.” This advice was provided to me days before my Rhodes Scholarship interview. There is some truth to this statement—sharing my opinions, especially ones that are more controversial, may indeed pose challenges in my professional life. However, I believe the consequences of remaining silent and complacent outweigh the consequences of speaking up.

Who is your favourite person to follow on social media from your industry? What do you love about their social feeds?

Reni Eddo-Lodge, a British journalist and author. Much of her work, interviews, and social media focus on feminism and discussing structural racism. I admire her patience, tolerance, intelligence, and unparalleled work ethic. She challenges the status quo and uses her words to make people self-reflect and think more deeply about their perspectives of the world.

How would you describe your industry in terms of representation and inclusivity? What’s the most pressing issue facing women in your industry right now?

Women remain disproportionally under-represented in much of academia, particularly in senior positions. They exist in a paradox that their male counterparts often do not experience. Those who are assertive are often accused of being bossy, and those that demonstrate compassion are often not taken seriously. Although academia has become more diverse, in terms of both gender and race, there remains a lot of room for necessary improvements.

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