Fall 2021 Convocation Spotlight: Shima Shahbaz, ’21 PhD in Medical Sciences - Oral Biology

COVID-19 pandemic a launching pad for recent doctoral graduate.

Ross Neitz - 19 November 2021

Faced with the onset of a global pandemic during her postgraduate studies, Shima Shahbaz, ‘21 PhD in Medical Sciences - Oral Biology, quickly recognized the unexpected challenges came with great opportunity. With the help and encouragement of her supervisor, Shahbaz set to work to better understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is the cause of COVID-19. The willingness to embrace change and excel through it set her on a path for success.

Now decorated with over 20 awards and distinctions, six first-authorship publications in academic journals, and multiple other co-authorships during her time at the University of Alberta, Shahbaz is determined to move forward as a bold clinician scientist, using the lessons learned at the U of A to make her mark in the world.

Read more about Shahbaz’s experiences while in the Department of Dentistry at the U of A.

What was the greatest lesson you learned while at the U of A? 

There is only one way to go forward and that is through hard work. Without that, success is impossible. I learned that success in research requires 24/7 focus and many sacrifices.  

How did the pandemic impact your work? 

Although COVID-19 was a major global challenge, it created an opportunity for immunologists to tackle this issue. In line with this, in March 2020, my supervisor Dr. Elahi pivoted his lab to work on COVID-19 and I was the first individual to show interest to contribute to the field.

It was very challenging and scary at the same time because we were working on fresh blood samples from COVID-19 patients. We had limited knowledge and were always hesitant about handling such samples because of the risk of contracting the infection. In the end, I was excited about my contribution to the field, which resulted in two first-authorship publications and one co-authorship in excellent and reputable journals related to COVID-19 infection. Our discoveries had clinical implications in understanding the disease.

What is it about your field of study that speaks to you?

I believe immunology is a foundational science. Everything is somewhat associated with our immune system. COVID-19 in a way highlighted the importance of immunology, and I am proud of becoming an immunologist. My overall career goal is to become a clinical scientist with special focus on understanding the immunological mechanisms associated with immune dysregulation in autoimmune diseases and immune dysfunction in chronic infectious diseases. 

What set you on the path to success in your field?

My hard-working, very supportive lab, and a supervisor who was always available to listen to my concerns and help me throughout my journey. Another important element was the freedom I had to test different ideas. 

What advice do you have to give to future U of A grad students?

Work hard, make sacrifices, be creative and don't limit yourself to a single project.

What's next for you?

After finishing my post-doc training, I would like to take the board of dermatology exam and continue to become a dermatologist with special focus on autoimmune and infectious diseases.