Women in Pharmacogenetics – Samar S. M. Elsheikh

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “pharmacogenetics”? We were very confused at the beginning but excited to learn. Here is Samar’s journey into pharmacogenetics;

Hi Samar. It’s wonderful to speak to you again after all this while! I hope you have been well. Thank you for joining us today
Hi Winnie! It has been long indeed but we have finally made it here, haha. I am doing well, and thanks for inviting me.

As the first question, please introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Samar Salah Mohamedahmed Elsheikh from Sudan. I am currently doing my postdoctoral research at the Pharmacogenetics Research Clinic at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital.

To give a more detailed explanation about my work, what I do is called pharmacogenetics. This is a field that studies the effect of genetics on how the body responds to drugs. So it has a bit of pharmacology and genomics. This is a multidisciplinary field that accommodates people from various backgrounds like bioinformatics, statistics, biology, pharmacology, computer science, among others.

This is completely something new to me, I am sure to some readers too. Please tell us how you joined this world
My career journey has been a circle with some moments of getting lost and getting back to the start, haha. As a child, I had a lot of interest in the field of psychiatry and psychology. I always wished I could be a doctor who specifically helps people with mental illness. That was my childhood dream but I lost it as I grew up. One reason was that when I studied biology, I found it extremely hard for me. It has many long and difficult words that I was required to memorize.

In the third year of secondary school, I had to choose between two majors; either biology or computer science. I chose computer science because it made a lot of sense to me. Adding biology and engineering was for me to keep my opportunities open. I had to drop biology because like I said it was hard for me, and later, engineering because I preferred computer science and wanted good marks.

The major for my undergraduate degree was statistics which I enjoyed so much and was encouraged to do by my lecturers. After that, I did my national service under the Statistics Consulting Unit at the University of Khartoum, which gave me experience in statistical analysis and study designs. I started my first master’s during that same time and spoke to people in pursuit of the next steps.

I was advised by Dr. Zakariya Mohammed, head of the Department of Statistics at the time, to apply for a scholarship at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) which I got, and moved to Ghana for my second master’s. It was a difficult time because I was leaving home for the first time. By the time I left AIMS, I knew that I wanted to do something that combines computer science and statistics.

I contacted Dr. Alessandro Crimi and Dr. Emile Chimusa and we managed to apply for a Ph.D. at the University of Cape Town (UCT) under the primary supervision of Prof. Nicola Mulder with funding from the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD). My Ph.D. was in Bioinformatics and gave me a chance to combine what I wanted and also learn biology, haha. It was a little bit difficult to catch up after all these years but was made easy with the mentorship of Prof. Mulder.

While I was finishing my Ph.D. I was also working as a teaching assistant at AIMS South Africa. It was another opportunity for me to gain more interpersonal skills and mentor my students. When I was finishing AIMS, I got a postdoc at UCT but I was also applying for other positions in Europe and Canada. That’s how I got my current opportunity.

My ongoing research focus is on developing machine learning techniques to help detect the response of antidepressants in depression but I also do other work in schizophrenia when I get a chance to.

It’s amazing how you leave your passion in mental health and it catches up with you in the future after you have gathered all these skills to support you in doing a magnificent job.

Samar, what can you say has been your most challenging phase while on your journey?
The most challenging thing for me is being away from my parents and siblings. It hurts me that my parents are growing older and I am not there to take care of them like I would want to.

The other challenge is adapting to changing environments. For example, before AIMS I was doing only Statistics then I moved to an environment with different courses, all taught in English! Having to solve challenging problems and meet tight deadlines was hard for me but I made it.

Deciding on the next step has also been a challenge most of the time. This comes with having to tell my parents “oh, I have to go here” every time. That is not easy for me. But I am so glad that I always have all the support I need from them.

I can relate to most of the challenges you have mentioned, but, how are you able to stay focused through everything?
Well, life has ups and downs. I talk to my friends and mentors a lot when I am challenged. My other solution is listening to motivational speakers. I know most people don’t like it but it lifts me. What also helps me so much is taking breaks to look back at what I have achieved so far. I have trained myself to write a list of my achievements and read them every morning during difficult times. I also create timed and detailed to-do lists and check them off once achieved.

Tell us about moments when you felt like your effort had been acknowledged
The first award I received was in my undergraduate; the Faculty of Mathematical Sciences award for the second-best academic performing student. I had worked so hard that year because I wanted to pull my GPA up but didn’t expect to get that far.

It felt so good to have received many research awards like the AIMS and OWSD scholarships. During my Ph.D., I also received the University of Cape Town International Students Scholarship. I have also received a lot of travel grants, maybe like 10 or more.

As someone in academia, I have managed to establish a good publication record and an extended collaboration with researchers across the globe.

One more thing; I was pleased when UCT featured my graduation pictures, especially that great shot with UCT VC, mom, dad, and my lovely sister. It felt great, especially that my graduation was virtual and my family flew from Sudan to join me.

What else do you do that’s outside your academic work?
I am involved with international communities and professional platforms that build capacity in data science and bioinformatics. For example, I am the young scientists’ representative for the African Society for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology since 2017. I also volunteer to teach for The Carpentries, an international community that teaches researchers the basics of data science and programming.

I remember this one time when I went back home for my brother’s wedding and decided to put up a call for a Software Carpentry Workshop in collaboration with the University of Khartoum. We had planned to do it for only 2 days but got more than 500 applicants. We had to cut most people off and chose only 40 because of the resources. Even with that, people to who we sent rejections came on the day of the sessions with very high hopes. It was lovely and it taught us something about the demand for these skills. I have then started to run a YouTube channel where I teach Arabic speakers data science and programming. I teach for fun!

Outside all this, I am my mother’s daughter, haha. You will find me talking to her on the phone or chatting on WhatsApp. I also like hanging out with friends and taking pictures. I love nature and food, a lot!

What is your favorite quote?
Life goes on” ~ Robert Frost. I like to remind myself of this in difficult situations. We have only one life and time will just move, whether you use it or not, so we should try to make the best out of it. haha.

I will leave my second-favorite quote here too; “It is with the heart that one sees rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye” ~ The Little Prince.

What would you say to a young African girl who is passionate about STEM?
You need to act and act quickly while keeping your mind open to opportunities. At each stage of your life, look for mentors around you and make the best out of their support to take the right path. Platforms like this one are available to help them navigate through life and learn from what others experienced. Don’t be shy while at it.

And that wraps up our pharmacogenetics session. Thank you very much, Samar! Wishing you the very best with your postdoctoral program.

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