For those who are not familiar with you, what is your story?
My name is Amna. I have been a part of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) since 2017, as High School Ambassador, Events Directors, and this year, as the Conference Chair for the 2020 WISE National Conference. The National Conference was a two-day event that invited over 600 delegates from across Canada and the U.S. to partake in workshops, panels, listen to renowned female speakers in STEM, and participate in competitions and career fairs. I think this conference allowed me to showcase my vision, and the vision of my team, of what it means to be a woman in STEM and what the future of gender equality and STEM would look like on a national stage. However, I think my story starts earlier than that. A lot of people don’t know that I was born in Pakistan. My family and I immigrated to Canada when I was around four years old. So I have lived in Toronto for most of my life. I think in high school is when I became cognizant of gender inequality issues within my community and within Canada at large as well as the stereotypes and boxes that women are put into. Within my own high school community, my friends would drop out of sports because gaining muscles was “manly”, or friends would not want to pursue STEM fields because they were generally male dominated. This cognisance led me to start Girls Empowerment Group with my friends. Throughout this experience, we wanted to create a safe space to talk about gender equality, feminism, and the erosion of the word “feminism”. We had assemblies and conferences to invite representatives from women’s shelters, representatives from Plan Canada, and I wrote speeches about feminism that I was lucky to present on regional, provincial, and national stages. It was throughout this experience that I was able to strengthen and share the work of gender equality, and it became integral to my identity.
At the University of Toronto, I undertook a double major in biology and immunology. When I first came upon WISE, I was excited to continuously be a part of the fight for gender equality within my university community as well. Starting off with WISE as a high school ambassador, my team and I would go to local GTA high schools to give presentations on post-secondary STEM opportunities. Throughout these presentations, you don’t feel as if you’re making the world’s difference. But afterwards, when I had parents tell me how we inspired their daughters to think of STEM as viable career options, which they’d never thought of before, or when we had students thank us for our open attitude, I remember thinking that I was going on some correct pathway.
I remember when I was asked to become conference chair last year, I was very much taken aback. I really felt that I could not do it. I remember blatantly refusing to be part of the company. I remember going home that day telling my mom, and she looked at me quite confused. She said, “You’ve always vouched for furthering gender equality, and you’ve always wanted to share your vision about what gender equality looks like. So why are you refusing to do this now?”. I remember being quite embarrassed about this, and the next day I went back and I said, “I’ll do it, but if I’m going to do it, I’m going to make it even better than it was the year before”. So I wanted to expand the conference to 600 delegates, not only across Ontario but also across Canada. We had delegates come from the maritimes, the west end, we even opened up our ticket sales to international delegates from across the U.S. and especially from Northern U.S. states. It’s very easy to talk about gender equality and say that we need more of it, but for me, I think it’s always harder to implement and work towards gender equality because how do you begin doing that? I think the latter is exactly what we need to do at the WISE National Conference. We had workshops on impostor syndrome, how to have confidence in the workplace, engineering and science case competitions, collaborating with local companies and organizations to advertise internships and job opportunities, and finally, inviting renowned world speakers such as bioethicist Dr. Francoise Baylis to Erika Cheung, a key whistleblower in the Theranos controversy. I think the workshops and creating those connections between students and mentors are what was amazing about this experience and why I’m quite happy with the WISE National Conference and what a success it became.
At what point in your life did you become interested in working in the field of STEM? When did you know that you want to go into medicine?
I originally entered into the applied sciences within the University of Toronto not knowing whether or not I wanted to go into medicine specifically. I started off with wanting to go into chemistry and I remember starting off with a chemistry major. After doing a bit of research, I shifted completely away from the chemical sciences into the biological sciences and I took a major in human biology and immunology. At the end of second year, I remember reading one specific book called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It’s about a family that moved from a region in China to America and their interactions with the American healthcare environment, and how difficult it was for them to navigate this field because of language barriers and cultural issues. Their concept of medicine was so different from the American concept, and I think I related quite heavily to that story because my grandmother, who didn’t know any English, was hospitalized a couple of years ago with cancer along with diabetes. So her experience and her navigation within the healthcare environment was similar to this family because she didn’t know exactly how to go about it. I remember during that time, I was finishing high school, and I thought how amazing these doctors and nurses were who would go out of their way to make sure that our Pakistani culture and traditions were respected. Even though we were in Canada, we were living in a healthcare environment that was so different. I think for myself, what really pushed it to the edge was that I wanted to be within the healthcare profession; I wanted to be a doctor that would be able to continuously try to mitigate those differences within different minority populations, especially vulnerable populations, whether that be refugees, Indigenous cultures, or homeless populations.
I also had some great mentors. In the psychiatry lab that I work with right now, my supervisor, Dr. Roger McIntyre, is a world-renowned psychiatrist and he became a wonderful mentor to me. We would spend time talking about what he thought the future of psychiatry looked like for him, especially as it related to health care equality and equity, making sure that mental health resources are provided to students and vulnerable populations. One of his popular sayings is “your health isn’t determined by your genes, but rather your postal code or your area code”. So for example, if you live in an area that is very polluted or that doesn’t have access to health care, that has a bigger impact on you and your health than your genetics do. I think that’s something that’s always stuck with me and that’s something that I work towards mitigating and fixing within healthcare.
How do you stay motivated in your losses and grounded in your wins?
I’ve never really counted my losses or my wins. I think what’s always been important to me is the end goal, and towards that journey there are going to be many ups and downs. I think it’s important to always remind yourself that you are working towards something that is greater than one simple loss or one simple win. So whether that be making sure that your research hypotheses are completed, your thesis is completed, or your applications to grad schools are accepted. Throughout the WISE National Conference, we had lots of hiccups in the road, whether that be speaker dropouts, getting appropriate funds and ticket sales. But I think what really kept myself and my team going was that we were creating something bigger than ourselves. We were creating something bigger than our losses. What we ended up using our losses for was simply as a means to improve ourselves. If we didn’t get appropriate funding from one source, how can we be inventive and think of other options? If one workshop wasn’t going well, how do we be inventive and think of new strategies and new plans of action so that people would be amazed with the outcome? Once you do get through those losses and failures, and you end up having great success, it really pushes you further. I think what really keeps you grounded is your humility because success doesn’t come easily; it’s only through that hard work that you’re able to have sweet victory. I think it’s humility which keeps you grounded so that when you do start another initiative, you don’t feel that success going to your head.
How do you stay resilient in these uncertain times? And how are you adapting to this new norm?
I think COVID-19 has made us all realize you can’t really plan for anything. This is not how I expected to end my senior year with my graduation postponed. I was supposed to travel with my friends and see the world, which all got put on hold because of this global pandemic. I think during the first month or so, I remember my mental health taking a significant decline. With the pandemic you sense almost an impending doom. You don’t know what the future is going to look like. You’re hearing lots of these new cases popping up. It was just a time where you didn’t feel like you knew what was going to happen. I think for me to stay resilient, it was about going back to my roots. For me, a large part of that was my family and friends. They’ve always been a very strong support system for me and I think having a community behind you is very important. I remember talking to my friends everyday, who would be on the other side of Toronto or the other side of the world, and just talking about what was happening in the world but also joking around a little bit and having fun because that’s all that you can do to make sure that your mental health is not suffering. It was also, for me specifically, going back to who I am and what I love. So going back to my hobbies, which included painting, reading, playing a little bit of sports outside if I could.
COVID-19 also allowed me to rediscover who I am a little bit more. For me, adapting to this new norm of COVID-19 has been a lot about trial and error. I remember some days waking up being really motivated. I still conduct research within a psychiatry lab and we’re also working within a pain clinic. So getting up and working on my research, working on my hypothesis and thinking “we can get through this together”, and some days just not wanting to leave my bed. I think for myself to adapt to this new type of normal, it was really about making a schedule for myself and following it almost religiously. In this new environment where it seems that we have no control over anything, those limits that I set for myself are important for me to stay resilient and to not feel overwhelmed.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?
I recently graduated from UofT with a Bachelor’s of Science, and I was recently accepted to the University of Toronto medical school, so I will be a medical school student in September. I think what really interests me about medicine and science in general is the aspect of healthcare equality and equity, whether that be access to reproductive rights, or access to health care for vulnerable populations such as Indigenous, minority, and refugee populations. Within the next five years, I want to be part of a community that vouches for these healthcare issues and continuously furthers not only public health issues, but specifically issues about women’s rights to health, whether that be people within Toronto or internationally as well. So within the next five years, not only do I hope to be part of student organizations that look to advance these issues, but I’m also hoping to go into either preventative medicine and public health or doing a Master’s in global health and a residency within that program.