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Tips from a PhD grad who’s done it all

Sherin Al-Safadi has done important research, won awards and given back to the community
September 10, 2014
By Lucas Wisenthal

Sherin Al-Safadi’s PhD research explored the effects of stress on the circadian system Sherin Al-Safadi’s PhD research explored the effects of stress on the circadian system. | Photo by Josée Lecompte

Last April, Sherin Al-Safadi (MBA 10, PhD 14) stood before a group of Concordia faculty and staff and summarized more than three years’ worth of research into three minutes.

The challenge was part of Three Minute Thesis (3MT), a competition that calls for master’s and PhD students to distill their theses down to 180 seconds.

While cutting her doctoral work on the effects of stress on the circadian system to the bare essentials was difficult, Al-Safadi was ready to compete after taking part in training sessions hosted by the School of Graduate Studies and, of course, rehearsing the presentation innumerable times.

“I stepped back, closed my eyes and thought about what, exactly, my research means and how it can benefit society,” she says. “I had to look at things from a strategic perspective and take a big step backward before I got down to the details.”

Al-Safadi clinched first place in the Concordia competition and second at the eastern regionals, held later that month at Dalhousie University. And though she did not walk away with a title from May’s national competition, hosted by the University of Calgary, she was pleased to put her research and communication skills to the test.

Now, with her studies complete, Al-Safadi has parlayed her impressive educational pedigree — along with her PhD in neuroscience and MBA from the John Molson School of Business (JMSB), she holds a BSc and MSc from McGill University — into an exciting position with Bayer as a Medical Science Liaison in Ophthalmology.

“It is a a job that will allow me to use my science background and business background in the best way possible,” she says.

Al-Safadi had precisely that goal in mind in fall 2010, when she began her doctorate at Concordia. Her supervisor, Shimon Amir, a professor in the Department of Psychology, had long studied the circadian system. After consulting with him, Al-Safadi decided that her own research should explore the effects that daily stressors — think work, family and more — have on it.

“The circadian research field has been disregarded in the past, but in the last 10 to 15 years it’s drawn more interest,” she says.

In investigating the effects of stress on a molecular level, Al-Safadi worked with animal subjects. Her goal was to see how the circadian system and nervous system could be manipulated to improve the lives of those suffering from sleep disorders, mitigating the need for Band-Aid solutions like sleeping pills.

The work was complex. Because she was using livestock, a single mistake could have set her back months. That didn’t happen, though. And with the help of her supervisor and department, Al-Safadi was able to stick to the schedule she set out for herself.

“In starting a PhD or any kind of degree, the most important thing is to have a strategy, including a timeline. As long as you stay in touch with your supervisor and follow that, no matter the struggle you go through, you should finish on time.”

Al-Safadi advises aspiring doctoral students who are passionate about their research to shop around before selecting a supervisor and a lab.

“It’s important to ask around ­— to learn about the dynamics of the setting — before you join. When you do commit, you should know exactly what to expect.”

And though a strong focus on school is critical, Al-Safadi also believes in a balanced lifestyle for graduate students.

“Any kind of research is a test of patience and time management, and that means maintaining interests outside of the lab. Make sure you have a social life and stay involved in your community.”

While pursuing her own PhD, Al-Safadi was also building Fondation Amal, a charitable organization she founded with some JMSB classmates. Through events catering to young professionals, they raise funds for children who are chronically ill or who suffer from mental and physical disabilities.

“We’re trying to instill the philanthropic spirit in people between 25 and 40 years old,” she says.

In the past, the money the foundation has generated has gone to the MAB-Mackay Foundation, the Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada and Leucan, a group supporting children with cancer.

Al-Safadi will continue to build Fondation Amal as she forges her career. And though she has already accomplished a great deal, one achievement stands out.

“Having completed my PhD and graduated was incredible,” she says. “It was something I had had in mind for a long, long time, and it was almost surreal to walk across the stage and convocate.”

Learn about 12 more remarkable Concordia graduates.


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