Working Life

How I made my own opportunities

Science  18 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6279, pp. 1358
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6279.1358

Like many other medical students in Pakistan, during my first year of medical school I aspired to become a neurosurgeon to enjoy a lucrative lifestyle and high social status. But all that changed when I was diagnosed with depression during my second year. Although painful, the experience instilled in me a passion for psychiatry, a field that has yet to establish itself in Pakistan. Today, my dream is to improve mental health care for mothers and children in low- and middle-income countries. I want to take a combined academic and clinical approach, but I have found many obstacles to pursuing research in Pakistan. Persistence and an ability to leverage whatever resources I can find have been key to my success thus far.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“Over time, I also learned to reach out to get more help.”

At first, I found few research opportunities and mentors. In Pakistan, it is unusual for medical students to pursue research. At my university hospital, clinicians with a strong research background were rare, especially in a field like psychiatry. Also, I was not at the top of my class, and several faculty members I approached tried to discourage me from pursuing research by saying it would be overwhelming alongside my medical studies.

I finally found a mentor during my third year of medical school. Our lecturer in physical medicine and rehabilitation believed in the importance of research and invited me and other interested students to join him on a project investigating the attitudes of Pakistani medical students and faculty members toward plagiarism.

Through this lecturer I also learned about AuthorAID, an international development program coordinated by the U.K.-based charity INASP that aims to help researchers in developing countries publish their research. I used AuthorAID and its online library to learn about the scientific method, research design, and the writing and publishing processes. I deepened my biostatistics skills by reading books, taking free courses that I found online, attending webinars offered by research agencies in Pakistan, and teaching myself how to use statistics software packages.

Over time, I also learned to reach out to get more help. While working on the plagiarism project, I got in touch with the scientist at the University of Rijeka in Croatia who had developed the original survey questionnaire. I was thrilled when she agreed to teach me while she conducted the validation analysis and wrote up the results. A few months later, I was able to use what I had learned to survey the mental well-being of Pakistani health care professionals. With language help from AuthorAID in the Eastern Mediterranean (a separate AuthorAID project), I published a first-author paper about the work. Since then, I have been grateful to receive email supervision from researchers I have contacted in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. This has helped me further expand my skills and pursue other scientific interests, which today include the psychosocial factors in Pakistan that affect anxiety and depression during pregnancy.

I pay it forward by sharing my knowledge with junior students at my institution through workshops and collaborations. Challenges remain, however. In particular, there is little financial support for research in Pakistan, especially for undergraduates, and my co-authors and I have had to put in our own money while trying to be as frugal as possible.

I have a long way to go to fulfill my dream. After I graduate this summer, I plan to complete both my clinical and research training, ideally in the United States. In addition to establishing a clinical practice, I hope one day to set up an epidemiological research center in Pakistan that would help improve the standard of care for mothers and children with mental health issues. But my experiences so far have encouraged me to believe that if I work hard, persevere, and make the most of the resources available, I can reach my most far-fetched ambitions.

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