Tell us a little bit about yourself:
So, I was born in Baghdad, Iraq. The first six years of my life, I grew up in a small city south of Baghdad, and then moved to Baghdad central. It wasn’t the best time to grow up with the war happening.
When I started elementary, was when the war occurred, and it has continued until now. That is what interested me in medicine because I saw the resiliency of the human mind.
My elementary school was bombed once, and when I saw that, while most people were traumatized - some acted like nothing happened. I always think about the multi-finality of the human brain and how it shapes the narrative of what happens to someone. This society has dealt with so much trauma, and at the same time, a lot of people shook it off.
That was the narrative that got me interested in human behavior. Growing up with that and seeing my parents, who were physicians, I saw how their work provided a security blanket for people. Between 2006 and 2007, my parents provided this front-line health work. I wanted to be like my parents and work with vulnerable populations and disadvantaged populations.
What brought you to NOVA?
When I was 18, I graduated high school and immigrated to the states. I moved to the states and lived with my cousin who lived by a NOVA campus. He told me to give the school a try.
I started NOVA as a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant and barely spoke English. I can’t thank NOVA enough for all that was done for me. I didn’t know what the education system was, what credits were or that you could take biology and science classes. The system that I grew up with was one where the course was chosen for you.
I was told to always study, I didn’t know about clubs, organizations, etc. I grew up with a very different system. NOVA gave me a great space to explore.
Everyone I worked with, including Dr. Hemchand Gossai, gave me the necessary skills to be myself.
I also grew up gay in this society, and with having my mom be an OBGYN, I was exposed to sexual health, but I felt that I grew up different. I didn’t know how to vocalize that I liked boys. And I was researching it through science and kept looking it up. I read that this was something normal.
As a society, we have moved a lot toward positively advancing LGBT issues, but I didn’t know this growing up. I still didn’t know the word ‘gay,’ but I knew I wanted to study medicine in America.
From an immigrant perspective, coming to America was a cultural shock. From the gay perspective, this was great. I went to my first Pride parade in DC. It was an amazing experience to see that everyone was able to express themselves.
What professors and classmates from NOVA do you still stay in touch with?
Dr. Hemchand Gossai and Dr. Kristen Simmons.
When I joined NOVA there was an opening in the Biology honors course and I thought I would give it a try. I was so young – and at the end of this course we had to write a paper and give a presentation – and everyone was high achieving. Everyone in the course was interested in science – and the honors club became my hanging out space at NOVA. Dr. Kristen Simmons has walked me through – like writing my first scientific paper about Down Syndrome.
She reinforced my interest in science and showed me how science is done within the scope of the classroom.
What are your educational goals?
I applied to six schools, and Johns Hopkins University was my top choice because it’s a world-renowned institution in terms of research. After NOVA, I studied my undergrad years there, and I did research on cancer genetics, mental health and psychology.
I graduated recently, and now I head to University of Connecticut in mid-July to pursue a PhD and MD.
My track takes about 8 to 9 years to finish. Ideally, I will go into the Physician Scientist Training Program (PSTP). It is a specific residency for people who are interested in both science and medicine. It is less of clinicals and offers more time for research.
What are your career goals?
The ideal career goal, and maybe it’ll change after medical school, but I see myself practicing medicine and science side by side. I want to ask patients clinical questions and apply them.
I want to address the gap between medicine and science. Doctors are usually concerned about how to cure something and scientists are concerned about the why of the disease. Rarely do people ask about the ‘how’ that connects the two. In my opinion, doctors get so sucked up in the patient role and don’t have time to address other things, and some scientists may not be up to date with their clinical knowledge.
What would you tell a student coming to NOVA?
NOVA is one of the most accepting, diverse and honestly excellent institutions. There are two kinds of institutions – the kind that takes you on when you’re done building yourself and then claims credit – and then, there’s the institution that builds you. NOVA is an institution that builds you. NOVA will give you the resources you need, you just need to take advantage of it.
Northern Virginia Community College is the largest institution of higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls more than 75,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield and Woodbridge, and through NOVA Online. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, call 703-323-3000 or visit the College's Web site, www.nvcc.edu.