Convocation spotlight: PhD Medical Sciences '22 grad Sarah Raza

Sarah will receive her PhD in medical sciences (specialization in pediatrics) in November.

22 November 2022

What achievement, accomplishment, or moment are you most proud of from your time in the program?

The medical sciences doctoral program has been a memorable experience, as I was able to engage in several research-related opportunities to expand my skill set. One moment I am particularly proud of was the opportunity to take on a trainee leadership role with Kids Brain Health Network (KBHN). KBHN is a trans-Canadian network of researchers and clinicians dedicated to helping families and children with neurodevelopmental disabilities. From 2019-2021, I was the chair of the KBHN National Trainee Policy and Advocacy Committee (TPAC). This committee interacts with stakeholders on policy and advocacy initiatives related to children’s brain health. The goal of TPAC is to translate the impact of research into public policy. In this role, I led the development of policy briefs for the minister of health and other senior-level decision-makers, outlining the need for support and increased accessibility for children with developmental disabilities. As well, I also had the opportunity to organize, facilitate and present at a policy forum at the KBHN annual conference in Ottawa. The forum engaged an audience of more than 100 people and included a panel of decision-makers and stakeholders. The aim of the forum was to explore approaches for bringing research and innovation into public policy. My presentation discussed improving access to early intervention programs for children with autism (which was built upon my dissertation research). These experiences not only honed my ability to communicate research effectively but also instigated a passion for mobilizing knowledge beyond the scientific community.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

As I am sure is the case with most graduate students, the biggest challenge I faced during my doctoral program was navigating research activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. My research consisted of a longitudinal cohort study examining the early signs of autism in at-risk infants from six months to two years of age, with data collection sites at hospitals in Edmonton, Toronto and Halifax. As my research was developmental and involved consecutive appointments with children and their families, the pandemic lockdown had tremendous implications for my research activities. Clinical appointments were cancelled and there was restricted access to hospital centres. Moreover, differences in provincial lockdowns and restrictions added another layer of complexity. Nonetheless, this challenge provided me with the opportunity to learn how to adapt. This not only included adapting my research project, timeline, and career plans but also gave me the opportunity to learn how to pivot during unique circumstances. Inadvertently, the pandemic allowed me to practice these skills and understand the importance of resilience. 

What initially drew you to this area of study?

I have always been eager to work on projects that produce real-world health solutions that impact the lives of Canadians. My specific interest in medical research, however, began during my undergraduate education. Over the course of four years, I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant in a developmental neuroscience laboratory. My time at the laboratory consisted of working on several projects (using animal models) focused on understanding the role of early experiences on brain development and later outcomes, with implications for human health. As a student, it was very rewarding to see the potential clinical impact of my research. This experience led me to pursue graduate school with a focus on pediatrics, as I desired to learn more about neurodevelopment in autism and apply this knowledge to a real-world setting. This shifted my career pursuits to clinical research, where I sought to work with clinicians to translate research evidence from bench to bedside and improve the lives and future potential of children and their families.

What lessons will you take from pursuing a degree during the pandemic?

There are two big lessons I learned from pursuing a degree during the pandemic. First, the pandemic brought about a new normal for all of us. Learning how to adjust, pivot and be flexible are crucial skills. That is, focusing on what is within our control and being OK with that. Second, being intentional, practising self-compassion and acknowledging that we are in the midst of a difficult time is an underrated skill/practice. Giving yourself — and others — grace is necessary for good mental health.

What comes next for you in your career/academic journey?

Over the last decade, I have carved out a unique training path in translational research. With the goal to improve the health and outcomes of individuals with autism, my academic pursuits involved an evolution from basic to clinical research. I have acquired skills and knowledge that have equipped me to not only understand the biological underpinnings of autism, but also the real-world health system challenges and barriers experienced by affected individuals. The culmination of these experiences has allowed me to bridge across several disciplines — from animal models to patient-oriented research — and develop a big-picture understanding of autism, promoting effective critical thinking from multiple lenses. As I take the next step in my career, I want to apply my skills in translating research into actionable knowledge and acquire practical experience in implementation science. In other words, through additional training, I want to broaden my understanding of health systems and the science policy-making process. It is my hope that this additional training in implementation science will prepare me for a future as an embedded scientist or a hybrid research and policy career. 

What advice would you give to a student thinking of entering your program of study?

Find your niche. Engage in opportunities outside of your research project — whether that be learning new research skills, participating in stakeholder engagement, joining journal clubs or trainee research groups, learning the art of science communication, etc. These opportunities will build your skillset and allow you to bridge across multiple disciplines (which is also an asset to your research!). Not only could you potentially come across a research-related activity that you are passionate about, but you also develop a unique niche that sets you apart from others as you move forward in your career.