A story of self-discovery
By Faria Ahmed
When I was 18 years old and entering university, I could never have imagined that ten years later I would be where I am today. Like my favourite characters in books and on television, I thought I would go through the ups and downs by my early 20s, land my dream job by 26, find true love by 28 and get married by 30. Probably have one or two kids by the time I’m 33. Now I laugh when I try to plan the next 2 years of my life because its unpredictability has finally set in. This brings me to the adventurous, tumultuous and widely enlightening journey that I made while seeking out my dream career.
It might sound like a bit of a brown immigrant cliche, but I was born to two physician parents in Bangladesh and was expected to stick to the health sciences as part of the family legacy. After I finally finished high school, I couldn’t make it through the brutal competition into the few publicly funded medical schools in my country, and I clearly could not afford any of the private ones. As a result, I settled for the next best thing – a career in biological sciences research. All those cool shows like CSI seemed to have an amazing forensic team who did biochemical tests to prove or disprove crimes! That was definitely what I wanted to do later in life. Another big source of inspiration came from the books by Erich Segal, whose characters were all MDs and PhDs working in the research field at Ivy League universities, conducting breakthrough research and getting nominated for the nobel prize. Yep, those sounded pretty sweet too. And so, armed with these fictional experiences from television and literature, I started writing admission tests for universities (yes, it’s a thing) offering these programs.
I eventually received an offer of admission into a top architecture program at BRAC University after a few different tests and interviews. I also received an offer from North South University’s Biotechnology program. After three weeks of living in confusion and inner conflict, I decided to pick the latter. What helped me make the decision was the simple question I asked myself. 10 years from now, would I want to be standing in front of an amazing skyscraper against the skyline in a major city of the world and call it my design? Or would I want to know that I have found or contributed to the discovery of a drug that can cure diseases affecting thousands of human lives? I knew the latter would personally give me more satisfaction.
Again, remember that I am doing neither of those things today. However, looking back, I do not regret the way I proceeded with my career through my first university degree.
Through the usual ups and downs of university life, I eventually graduated Magna cum laude from that Bachelor’s program in Biochemistry & Biotechnology. Things in my personal life had shifted by then and it was time for me to move to Canada as an immigrant and go live with my father. This is when I was asked by my family to decide on what I wanted to study for my graduate degree.
It’s important to note that by my final year of undergrad, I already knew deep in my heart that I didn’t enjoy being in a laboratory. As cool as it was to design experiments and analyze the data to draw meaningful conclusions, the actual act of being inside a large, cold room, (often by myself) was just not a pleasant experience for me.
So I began to do some digging to figure out what programs and professions are available in Canada that I can really get on board with. Medicine was definitely of interest, but going to school to re-do pre-requisites in Canada (because my ‘local’ credits were not acceptable to them) and then applying for a program where only a few percentage of applicants get in – was a bit nerve wracking. I then considered paramedicine, nursing, dentistry, and pharmacy. After an extensive amount of reading online, watching youtube videos and speaking to actual people who were working in these fields, I felt that nursing would be the way to go.
The way I saw it was that there was nothing I could not do as an RN (registered nurse). I could choose to stay a nurse and work in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and doctor’s offices. I could choose to specialize in anesthesia, geratric care or pick another specialty. I could even become an independent NP (Nurse Practitioner) and diagnose patients in the community, much like a family doctor. I could combine by undergraduate research experience and my nursing degree to help conduct clinical trials. I could become a teacher and take life into academia. I could one day wake up and decide to join some international organization and volunteer my time as a nurse in warzones or places with famines and epidemics.
The one big problem was that I needed a full 4-year undergrad to become an RN.
Meanwhile, my family’s insistence had driven me to apply to graduate school programs and my offer letters began to come in. My nursing acceptance came first and I was absolutely thrilled. Within a few short days, my acceptance to two different Master’s programs came in as well. With these offers, there was a guaranteed tuition scholarship for the two years of my Master’s program as well as the guaranteed research stipend (which is like a salary).
This made things very difficult for me. My family disapproved of nursing very openly. Not only because I hadn’t received scholarships for it, but also because it was a profession that was looked down upon (and unfairly so) in South Asia. This is the moment that I (kind of) regret a little in my life. I gave in to the greed of leading a comfortable life devoid of student loans and part-time jobs. I also gave in to what my grandmother, aunts and my father were rooting for. That’s what led me to continue my career in medical science research.
I want to say that I ‘wasted’ the following two years of my life doing a Master’s of Microbiology & Immunology under the Faculty of Medicine at OttawaU. However, that would not be fair to all the experiences and achievements I had during that time. In the end of all that, I went right back to where I had started. Three scholarships, a few prizes and recognitions, and one research publication later… I still remained unhappy and anxious being stuck in a Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory. Some days I thought I needed to drink alcohol or try drugs just to feel something. I entered a dark period of my life when I began to realize how I would let people push me next into a phD. And just as I had thought, my supervisor eventually made me a financial offer I could not refuse, and I accepted a position in his lab to do my phD in Immunology as well.
I spend 30 incredibly suffocating days following that decision. After that, I had had enough. I went back to my supervisor and to his surprise I said I didn’t want to do my phD. He was disappointed beyond belief and so were the rest of my family members and loved ones. Even my closest friends were questioning my decision and my sanity. But I knew what I did was right for me.
I had never been so sure of something in my life. I knew this is what I wanted to do and I knew I would do it no matter what. I watched silently as my ‘world’ crumbled around me. I finished my degree, I graduated later than my peers, I had no job offers because the only thing I was trained for throughout my life was research. It became nearly impossible for me to get a job in fields other than research, as my skills were simply too specialized for that industry. My Scholarship money and my research stipend both ended and I was broke and unemployed. Even in that moment when my father kept asking me what I hell I was doing with my life…I turned to him and said with full confidence, that I was going to become a nurse.
In that very moment, I had found myself.