Aliaa Abdelhakim, MD, PhD is currently a Clinical Instructor in Ophthalmology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She is a vitreoretinal surgeon and also treats patients with genetic conditions that affect the eyes. Dr. Abdelhakim completed her medical school training at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, followed by an ophthalmology residency and vitreoretinal surgical fellowship at the Columbia University Harkness Eye Institute. She has won numerous awards throughout her training as a clinician and researcher. She was recently named the inaugural Burch-Chang Scholar, recognizing her as one of the rising research talents in ophthalmology.
Can you tell us about your journey to Columbia?
I was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in Kuwait. I went to the American University of Cairo for a year where initially I thought I'd study computer science. Quickly I realized that my passions were in research and the biomedical sciences. I applied to universities outside of Cairo, not expecting to be admitted. But I got lucky and was accepted into McGill University in Montreal.
I studied biochemistry and graduated with my undergraduate degree. I then decided to pursue the research path further, and went on to study molecular genetics and biochemistry for my PhD at MIT, followed by a postdoc in virology and cell biology at Harvard.
I was also working as a medical interpreter in Arabic at the time, and realized through that work that I wanted more patient interaction in addition to research, so I applied to medical school to pursue an MD. I chose to come to Columbia for my medical training, and I’ve been here since including for residency and fellowship training.
And what are you doing currently?
I'm simultaneously working as a vitreoretinal specialist in the Ophthalmology Department at Columbia and completing training in clinical genetics and genomics. I see patients in medical genetics as well as in the retina department, perform surgery, and conduct research.
One of my research projects aims to further study eye genetics in understudied groups. Our Arab population is generally underrepresented in the world of genetics research. If you look at genetic and genomic databases out there, people with Middle Eastern descent aren't represented nearly as much as other ethnicities, so that's a big source of interest for me. We need to be represented in these studies and databases more.
How was your experience at Columbia? Did you notice anything about the Medical School that was particularly different from other institutions you attended?
Graduate school is all about focus; you focus on one project for many years, work with the same group of people, and over time are able to see incremental progress.
Medical school is more fast-paced, and is all about people from different walks of life, both on the physician side and the patient side. I met a lot of students in my class who, like me, were older and had a career prior – lawyers, dancers, researchers and artists. The diversity of the patient population in New York City is, of course, unparalleled.
What was your favorite class during your time at Columbia?
Probably my favorite course was first year anatomy – a foundational introduction to medicine. We rely on patients who donate their bodies for science. As a student, you form a unique bond with the patient’s cadaver, through which you come to learn about the miracle of the human body.
What was your favorite book by or about Arabs?
One author whose work influenced me is Nawal El Saadawi. She’s an Egyptian feminist writer who was well known for broaching “taboo” subjects in Egyptian society. She writes about women's issues in Egypt, including in politics and religion and those in health and human rights such as female genital mutilation (FGM). She also happens to be a physician and writes from that perspective, so I appreciate that connection.
What was your favorite spot on Columbia campus?
The operating room with patients. There is something special, almost meditative, about having to singularly focus on a patient, sometimes for hours, and improve their life with surgery. Aside from that, I would say that the Morningside campus is a fun place to hang out, particularly with its green space and neighborhood fun finds.
Which mentors have been most impactful in your life. Any from Columbia?
I have so many mentors at Columbia, that it would be impossible to list them all! Currently I'm in learning so much from my mentor Dr. Irene Maumenee, who is double boarded in ophthalmology and genetics, and whose career I hope to emulate.
While Dr. Maumenee is most known for her work on connective tissue diseases and their effect on the eye, she has also worked on a variety of subjects. She was one of the first physicians to start the evolving field of ophthalmic genetics – a true giant in her field and a role model for women in medicine.
What advice would you give to your younger self at Columbia?
Don’t be afraid to forge new paths, even if there isn’t a role model or a similar path that's been created before you. You can be the person who brings the change that you want to see.
My path was a bit unusual because I started in research and then went into medicine. There were some unique obstacles I had to overcome on the way; for example, I came to the United States as an international student and an immigrant, so I couldn't apply to medical school until I was eligible through permanent residency, which took years to obtain.
At first it felt a bit intimidating to be one of the older students in my medical school class, but I quickly came to realize that my background was a wonderful asset. I had a different perspective from others and could contribute in ways only someone with a background like mine could.
What do you think CAAA can offer current and future alumni?
I think the most important gift CAAA can provide our Arab students and alumni is connection and representation. If aspiring students of Arab descent see that students of their same ethnic background can, and do, succeed at Columbia, regardless of the path they take, that would be a very important source of inspiration.