Trying to Catch Up with Arctic 2014 Alumnus Sergio Ráez Villanueva

IMG_1681 [80754]Post-expedition life moves fast, but Arctic 2014 alumnus Sergio Ráez Villanueva moves much faster. In fact, Sergio placed 23rd at the World Junior Track Championships in the 10,000m this past July. In addition to his career in competitive running, Sergio excels in academia. He is currently pursuing a Life Sciences degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and completes medical research during his summers. Whether he’s on the track or in the lab, his Students on Ice experience holds a special place in his heart as he makes strides towards his goals.

Sergio describes his 2014 journey to the eastern Canadian Arctic and western Greenland as an honour. Thanks to a scholarship from his Mississauga school board, he returned home inspired by the beautiful nature and culture he witnessed. “A classroom shouldn’t be confined to the four walls around you”, he explains, in agreement with SOI’s experiential learning mandate. “It wasn’t a leisure trip, you have to open your eyes and take it all in, and the same time understand it”.

Sergio also had his first taste of research while on board the ship. This experience made him more interested in, and passionate about, scientific discovery. He also developed a greater appreciation for the ecosystem in general – and knowledge of how to care for it – by touring the awe-inspiring Torngat Mountains National Park. Sergio also has fond memories of spending time with longtime SOI educator James Raffan, listening to his stories and participating in his knot-tying workshop.

This past summer Sergio worked as a researcher’s assistant at McMaster, in the field of obstetrics and gynecology, investigating how smoking cigarettes during pregnancy affects placental development. He says Students on Ice is the reason he had that position, because in grade 12 he saw a post about a high school research bursary in the SOI Alumni Facebook Group, and through that opportunity was connected with the mentor he still researches with today!

On the other hand, Sergio’s journey as a track athlete began prior to his Arctic expedition. He was born and raised in Peru, with tennis being his sport of choice until he moved to Canada in grade 8. He took up cross country after realizing he needed something to do in the winter instead of tennis. He would soon join the Mississauga Track club, and he became dedicated to running. He improved rapidly as he trained harder and longer, for example by increasing his Sunday long run distance to 20km. Evidence of his talent came in the form of a silver medal in the 2000m steeplechase at the 2015 Ontario provincial championships. Sergio first hit the international stage later that year when he competed for Peru at the Pan American Junior Athletic Championships in Edmonton, Alberta.

The story that follows perfectly exemplifies his strongly held belief that everything happens for a reason. He actually started his undergraduate degree last year at McGill University, but an illness forced him to take the rest of the year off. Since he could no longer race on the varsity team, he registered for the Mississauga 10km road race, and focussed on getting back in shape after his extended break. To his surprise and delight, he won the event with a massive personal best, and his coach suggested he try the distance on the track. In his first ever track 10,000m this past May, he hit the standard for World Juniors and the rest is history. Sergio’s experience at the championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, was strangely reminiscent of his voyage with SOI. He said he learned a lot by interacting with athletes from different countries and parts of Canada, similar to the cross-cultural sharing that occurred in the Arctic.

In the near future, Sergio is aiming to make the national team to compete at the World Cross Country Championships. He also would like to publish the results of the research he has been conducting, on his path to finding a career where he can “find the answers to questions that people haven’t answered yet, and ensure a better quality of life for people.”

Finally, he wants to share one piece of advice with members of the SOI community:

“Know that things happen for a reason…the bad things happen for some reason, maybe a lesson, maybe a path change. It’s all about being open and not closing yourself after that misadventure. Never give up.”

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