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Interview with Atef Badji, MD, PhD candidate

March 6, 2020

*Mitacs and TransMedTech fellow

A medical graduate, Atef has a keen interest in neurodegenerative diseases and neurocognitive disorders, interests that stem from a series of personal and professional experiences. Her aim is to assist in the development of treatments and diagnostics for neurodegenerative diseases and to provide a better understanding of these diseases. To this end, she is completing a doctorate in neuroscience before finishing up her medical residency.

Publications: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Atef_Badji

What is your research project in a few words?

With the aging of the population, it has become imperative to determine the key factors that help maintain the quality of life of our seniors in order to ensure optimal aging. Stiffness of large arteries such as the aorta is a common condition that occurs with aging and results in vascular remodeling that can limit the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain parenchyma. My doctoral thesis project aims to better understand the effects of arterial stiffness on the brain of the elderly using several imaging techniques (e.g. diffusion and transfer magnetization imaging).

We have already published our first results in two scientific journals (NeuroImage and NeuroImage: Clinical) with data from our cohort of 70 people recruited from the participant database of the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (CRIUGM). We plan to validate our results in the near future using data from a large British cohort (UK BioBank) to which we have requested access.

When asked to comment on his academic background, Prof. Cohen Adad, Atef's PhD director, describes his academic career as "exceptional". He uses the same qualifier for his entrepreneurial initiatives. One can find online his scientific publications, his examples of scientific translations, but also a desire to create value by translating his knowledge on social networks and implementing innovative methods in clinical practice.

What does being a TransMedTech fellow mean to you?

It means having the chance to achieve my goals with the peace of mind of a good fixed salary. I consider it a real privilege to be "paid" to LEARN. 

You have international experience, tell us about your study stay in Stockholm, your preparation before going there and its significance in your neuroscience career? 

Going to Sweden was like a dream come true for me. During my medical studies, I worked as an assistant nurse and then as a nurse in nursing homes in France. Initially, I wanted to work there to make up for not having been there for my grandmother before she died, for not having said goodbye to her. I thought that working with elderly people would help me feel less guilty. However, very quickly the choice of my professional future became obvious to me. Indeed, during these experiences, I witnessed the deadly impact of neurodegenerative diseases. I therefore decided to work to help the elderly in the best possible way. I wanted to take into account the daily lives of older women, improve their quality of life and ensure their health for optimal aging despite illness. To do this, I decided to do a doctorate in research before beginning my residency. The choice to do my traineeship in Sweden is motivated by my long-term desire to become a medical researcher in Sweden, if possible in Karolinska, one of the most important and reputable medical research centres and university groups in clinical geriatrics. 

I therefore feel extremely fortunate that Dr. Eric Westman has agreed to take me on a traineeship in the Division of Clinical Geriatrics at the Karolinska Institute in Huddinge.

To help me achieve my goals, I learned Swedish (level C1) in order to obtain the equivalence of my medical degree. My sister helped me a lot with this. She has been living in Sweden for about 2 years and she not only took me in when I was learning the language, but also gave me a lot of advice on how to get my medical degree equivalence there, as she is a doctor herself.

How do you apply the Living Lab approach here?

I do my doctoral thesis mainly between the research centre of the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (CRIUGM), the Unité de neuroimagerie fonctionnelle de Montréal (UNF), the Institut de recherche clinique de Montréal (IRCM), the Department of Pharmacology at the Université de Montréal and the NeuroPoly laboratory at Polytechnique Montréal. I am fortunate to be able to work with people with a wide range of expertise (e.g. physicians, neuropsychologists, engineers, statisticians, etc.). I therefore practice the Living Lab approach on a daily basis without really thinking about it. 

I have no hesitation at all in turning to one of these people when I have a question that requires their expertise. Some of these people know each other very well, others have never worked together before. I see myself as a bridge between these different people and therefore these different disciplines. I think that any student practicing the Living Lab approach feels the same way. Thanks to this, you not only learn more but also faster. After 3 years of doctoral studies, I can say that I am gradually starting to become aware of my multidisciplinary knowledge compared to other students. I am also fully aware of my shortcomings. I don't advance as fast as a student who focuses on one field for example. However, the Living Lab approach gives me all the tools I need to continue learning and improve. It never stops, fortunately!

What are you most proud of in your accomplishments? What's your next challenge?

"Happiness is real only when shared" (Christopher McCandless). I am proud of having a husband who supports me every day and helps me achieve my dreams. Since my marriage, I have lived more often alone than with my husband. I am proud of him, to have an unwavering pillar who supports me and helps me achieve my dreams, no matter what the sacrifices. However, if you insist that I talk about myself... I really don't know. I have a long term goal, and right now I've just acquired some of the cards I need to get there, while having a lot of fun in what I do. My grandfather (born in 1903) was a pharmacist and had to rebuild his pharmacy twice because of the wars, the last time at the age of 60. Talk about a model! I'm really trying to honour his name. I think that when I start my residency at the hospital, treating patients, maybe I'll start to be proud of myself. After all, I'm doing all this for them.

What would you recommend to the 2020 TransMedTech Scholarship applicants?

When I think of a research environment, a bunch of computers sitting in a room with no windows seems a bit outdated. On the contrary, the Living Lab approach is a place conducive to research and plays a catalytic role in breaking down the semi-translucent walls between the different areas of expertise. What a joy to be able to do research in such an environment. I recommend that 2020 candidates adopt the Living Lab approach from their first days in research, that they do not hesitate to ask questions and to find the most qualified person to answer them. You will be pleasantly surprised to find that most professors in the field respond with great enthusiasm and kindness to passionate students.