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Concordia MD

From Harvard research to top-ranked pediatric hospitals, meet 5 distinguished Concordia alumni in medical fields
February 18, 2020
By Damon van der Linde, BA 08

Present-day medical schools want more than good math and science scores from applicants. They want students with a range of skills, experiences and attributes that will help them become standouts in medical-related professions — which is where a university like Concordia comes in. 

Concordia takes a proactive approach to health research, from comprehensive prevention to the medicinal potential of synthetic biology. This cutting-edge work, paired with the university’s emphasis on experiential learning and hands-on education, provides a hospitable environment for students keen to prepare for careers as physicians and medical researchers. Look no further than these five stellar grads. 

Dr. Habib Shaikh, BSc 98

Dr. Habib Shaikh Dr. Habib Shaikh

While his path to medicine was arduous, the rewards have been worth it for Dr. Habib Shaikh, BSc 98.

He currently works at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital with a focus on lymphoma and gastrointestinal malignancies. Shaikh says that what drives him every day is the opportunity to help people through a difficult disease, such as cancer.

How did Concordia contribute to your career?

My experience at Concordia not only laid the foundation for my current career, but was also formative to the person I am today. I was looking for an education that would give me the opportunity to apply what was I learning in a meaningful way. The biochemistry Co-op program offered that and more.

From knowledgeable and caring faculty, to well-designed lab experiments and the great work rotations, I was able to learn not only didactically but also experientially, allowing for a deeper understanding of the material and allowing for more advanced training in the future.

What is your advice for Concordia students who are contemplating a career in medicine?

Get experience by volunteering at hospitals or clinics because unless you want to work in a lab, the doctor-patient relationship should be something you are passionate about. Basic research is also important as a way to differentiate yourself. I was able to work in the labs at Concordia, which helped build my résumé when applying to medical school.

What was the most moving experience of your career?

In 2017, I was able to go on a medical mission to Bangladesh to work with Rohingya refugees. As an oncologist, I see the resilience of the human spirit on a daily basis working with cancer patients. I saw that same resilience on another level working with refugee patients who have been subjected to horrific circumstances and conditions.

I also learned that things we take for granted — such as physical safety, a full stomach and a bed to sleep in — truly are blessings that we should be thankful for.

Dr. Natalie Cousineau, BSc 96

As an emergency physician, Dr. Natalie Cousineau, BSc 96, is used to seeing people at their worst. “In spite of the challenges, I knew I wanted to do emergency medicine from the moment I worked my first shift,” says Cousineau. “I love the pace, the variety, the procedures — and I always wanted to be the person who knew exactly what to do in an emergency situation. “We cope with the demands of the job by pulling together as a team in a way that no one on the outside could understand.”

How did Concordia contribute to your career?

My Concordia experience gave me a real passion for learning. It was the first time that I felt that I was the master of my educational experience, so to speak. I was in the exercise science program and the course work wasn’t easy, but it was the most engaged I’d ever been with learning. Concordia made me realize that given the right subject matter, I could be a passionate learner with the ability to excel.

What advice do you have for students who want to pursue medicine?

Make sure you want to do it for the right reasons. Medicine can often feel thankless but the privilege of being able to help people in need is really unparalleled. Get a good idea of what medicine actually entails by spending time volunteering in a health-care setting. Nothing compares to being in the middle of it.

What was the most moving experience of your career?

I remember a baby who died after an hour of our team doing everything we could. As doctors, we are expected to return to work as if nothing happened. Other emergency physicians on shift came to find me to see if I was OK. Colleagues in other areas of the hospital also texted or stopped by to see how I was doing. It was incredibly reassuring to know that my work family had my back. As much as the loss of a child always hits everyone hard, I feel supported by my team and that is what gives me the strength to face the next day.

Dr. Maya Haasz, BSc 02

Dr. Maya Haasz, BSc 02 Dr. Maya Haasz

For Dr. Maya Haasz, BSc 02 (chem. and biochem.), a commitment to service has been a constant, even before she chose a career in medicine. As an undergraduate, she served on the Concordia Student Union Council of Representatives, as an executive at Hillel and as an active volunteer.

At convocation Haasz was presented with the O’Brien Medal, awarded to an undergraduate student whose efforts and dedication best exemplify the values of Concordia within the larger external community.

“All those experiences led me to enjoy connecting with people and helping people, and now I get to do that every single day in a very meaningful way,” she says.

How did Concordia contribute to your career?

Any school is able to teach basic sciences, but the real advantage of Concordia was being involved in the Co-op program. That really allowed me to combine my classroom learning with real work experience. I was able to see the knowledge base I was developing in the classroom applied practically, which made learning more fun and gave me the opportunity to explore a variety of careers before choosing a direction. That was very helpful and solidified my decision to go into medicine.

What was the most exciting experience of your career?

I would say the most exciting moment was actually in my first month of being an attending physician. A toddler was rushed in because he had choked on a grape and when he got to us, he couldn’t breathe at all. We tried to do the Heimlich manoeuvre very aggressively but we couldn’t get the grape out — finally, I was able to pull it out of his airway. That’s probably the most exciting, but moving experiences happen on a daily basis.

Medicine is an exciting career, and it’s very gratifying. I personally couldn’t imagine doing anything else — I love walking into work every day at the beginning of a shift — but it’s also a humbling and challenging career.

James McCully, BA 75, BSc 78

Curiosity, a collaborative spirit and a dedication to helping people has led James McCully, BA 75, BSc 78, to medical research that saves lives.

McCully, who also has a PhD from the University of Toronto’s Banting and Best Department of Medical Research, has been instrumental in a new procedure for transplanting mitochondria — the energy factories found in every cell of the body — from patients’ healthy muscles into injured hearts and other vital organs that would otherwise be damaged beyond repair. “The transplanted mitochondria immediately activate and bring the tissue back,” he says.

Did someone at Concordia have a formative impact on your career?

Just as I was completing my BA in Political Science and Philosophy at Sir George Williams [a co-founding institution of Concordia, with Loyola College] I met with Dr. Ed Enos. He was launching a program at Loyola College in biophysical education and thought I would fit in there perfectly. Dr. Enos played a huge role in jump-starting my career. He provided a lot of guidance and he was a very hands-on, very active person.

What is your advice for Concordia students who are contemplating a career in medical research?

Medicine requires people from almost every area. You’ll still need to take the science courses, but a good background in writing is important because the number of grants and reports you have to write is astonishing. More and more — at least here in the United States — financial training helps and in fact some hospitals are paying for physicians to get an MBA degree.

What aspect of medicine do you most enjoy?

I really enjoy the research and luckily, our research on mitochondria transplantation has gone on to be applied. Actually treating patients with something you’ve developed is not only a thrill, but something very few people get to do.

What was the most moving experience of your career?

The first baby we treated with a mitochondrial transplant was really something. Soon after Avery was born, she was brought to us with complications from multiple heart surgeries and we didn’t think she would have a chance of surviving. I remember standing there, watching the heart come back. The child is now four years old and we still see her. I’ve seen a couple of the babies that have gone through the transplant and it’s always very moving.

Dr. Kristina Arion, BSc 12

Dr. Kristina Arion, BSc 12 Dr. Kristina Arion

As an obstetrician-gynecologist, Dr. Kristina Arion, BSc 12, might help deliver a baby and counsel another patient about the physical and emotional challenges of a life-threatening illness, all in the same day.

“I have to tell patients they have cancer — which can be really difficult — but then you also spend the journey with them through surgery and helping them with chemotherapy. You become an integral part of their lives,” says Arion.

How did your experience at Concordia contribute to your career?

I absolutely loved my Concordia experience and I wouldn’t have changed it in any way. I did a major in biology, as well as a minor in diversity and the contemporary world, which was part of the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability. It was a small community of students and we shared a lot of the same classes. We became very close with the professors, who gave us a lot of mentorship.

Was there anyone at Concordia who had a formative impact on your career?

Anna-Liisa Ainio at the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability always told us to express ourselves and be creative, which I didn’t always have while studying biology.

What advice do you have for Concordia students who are interested in medicine?

Have a diverse background. Of course it’s important to perform academically, but that isn’t the only thing that counts. The medical degree is a lot of work and residency is even more, so it’s important, if you can, to make the most of every opportunity that you have in your undergraduate degree to travel and discover the world.

In the medical school interviews, they will ask you questions about your life. Having been on a different path or having a passion are always things that make you stand out.

What was your most moving experience as a physician?

I think every day in medicine is moving. It’s hard to narrow it to one moment because I deliver babies every day and so partake in the happiest days of people’s lives. I see families come celebrate joy every day and that’s a heart-warming, contagious happiness.

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