Iqbal El-Assaad is the youngest medical doctor to graduate from Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q) in its ten-year history. When Iqbal was a toddler, she learnt algebra by watching her older siblings study. Before El-Assaad's fifth birthday, her favourite pastimes were reading books and solving mathematical problems.
Followi ng her graduation, Nature Middle East spoke to Iqbal about what it's like to be a 20-year old medical doctor and hear what she plans for the future.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in medicine?
I made the decision to be a doctor myself when I was 12 years old. Growing up as a Palestinian living in Lebanon, I saw much suffering among my people since the Palestinians in Lebanon did not have health insurance.
My fa mily and I visited the camps and saw how harsh the condit ions there were. I saw many parents who see their children suffering but they can't help them because they don't have the money to do that. These visits to the camps made me feel that it is my responsibility to study medicine and try to help these people. Many of them ca nnot even afford the medication they need.
What role did your family play in your decision to pursue medical school?
I am the youngest among my siblings and my father first noticed when I was two-and-a-half years old that I was keen to learn when he was teaching my brothers. For my dad, education is always number one – especially for a girl. He always said that the boys will eventually find work but education is a girl's weapon in the future. We grew up on this idea and my dad always encouraged me that if I have a dream I want to pursue, my parents would always help me.
I went to a private school in Lebanon that was based on the Lebanese curriculum, not an American school. After paying my tuition for the first two years, the principal of the school gave me a full scholarship. I used to skip grades and I was always the youngest person in my class.
I graduated from high school when I was 12 and Khaled Abany, who was then the education minister in Lebanon, honoured me as the youngest student to ever finish high school. I told him that I dreamt of being a doctor and he promised to try to secure a scholarship for me. The next day he contacted Sheikha Mozah [the Chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development] and she promised me a full scholarship to study at WCMC-Q.
Was it challenging being the youngest student in college?
The toughest time was when I first arrived in Qatar. I felt a lot of pressure because Qatar Foundation had given me the full scholarship without any tests. So I wanted to prove myself and prove that I was up to the trust people put in me.
The Lebanese education system prepares you very well for college so in terms of science and maths I found I was very well prepared.
I grew up with students who were always older than me so I am used to dealing with older people and I am mature enough to work with them. I always liked to study with friends in school and that carried on in college. This interaction has helped improve my way of thinking so that eventually people don't even notice there is an age difference.
What is your next step now after graduation?
I am leaving soon for a three-year residency at the Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. After that I want to apply for a fellowship in paediatric cardiology, which will take three more years. I then want to come back to the Middle East and work between Qatar and Lebanon – to pay Qatar back. They have been sponsoring me for the past six years. I also want to go back to Lebanon to help my Palestinian people because they are the main inspiration for me to be a doctor and I would like to fulfil my childhood dream to make a difference to their lives.
I can't say exactly why, but I just love it. In our third year in college I found I was really happy to be able to help little kids. I also see the hardship of Palestinian children living in camps in Lebanon and that is part of the reason why I want to pursue paediatrics
Are you interested in doing any research?
I definitely want to pursue research. I did research during the summer of my second year and I fell in love with it. I even published at that time and was involved in two other studies. I really like the idea of discovering something new.
I hope in the future I can join an academic health centre where I can treat patients and also work in research.
What advice would you have to young people who would pursue medicine?
The only advice I would have is for students to study hard and make use of the opportunities in Qatar. Having world-class universities here in the Middle East is beyond imagination. This is the most important stage in their lives and they have to work for it.
For premed students, enjoy your lives now! It is a good time especially if you have good friends and it is not really too hard so you can get the best of both worlds.