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Best and the Brightest

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For Qatari high schoolers in New York, an 'experience of a lifetime'

"These four ladies are really an impressive bunch, and you ought to be very proud of them," says Dr. Randi Silver. "They really worked very hard."

Dr. Silver, associate dean of the Graduate School of Medical Sciences and professor of physiology and biophysics, is standing at the front of a conference room in the Department of Pharmacology. Around the table are a few other Weill Cornell Medicine faculty and lab staff, plus some visitors who've traveled 6,700 miles to be here: the family members of the four Qatari high school students who have spent the past week on campus getting an up-close look at life in academic medicine.

Life lessons: Qatari students Wadha Al Nabti (left) and Alyiaa Haji (right) in the lab with instructor Dr. Anurag Sharma and professor Dr. Stefan Worgall.
Photo credit: John Abbott

It's the midpoint of their two-week stay, and the four soft-spoken young women are presenting the results of the small research projects they've just completed: one (in Dr. Silver's lab) on chronic lung disease in premature infants, the other (in the lab of Dr. Stefan Worgall, distinguished professor of pediatric pulmonology) on asthma. They also field questions on how the trip is going so far — and what inspired them to take it in the first place. "I'm currently 15, and my school is asking me what I want to do for the rest of my life, so I came here to see if I want to go into the medical field," responds Wadha Al Nabti, a rising junior at Qatar Academy. "This is going to be my deciding point."

The four have come to New York on Doctor of the Future summer scholarships, the prizes given to the winners of Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar's Healing Hands essay competition. Founded in 2008 as a way to attract talented Qatari students to medicine in general — and to the Doha campus in particular — the contest requires applicants to write 800 words on a medically related theme; this year's topic was "Coping with disability." Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar's faculty choose the four winners who will visit the New York campus in mid-July for (as the 2015 announcement put it) "a fully funded, two-week experience of a lifetime." The contest, which also awards 20 honorable mentions, routinely garners high-quality essays, notes Dr. Rachid Bendriss, assistant dean for student recruitment, outreach and foundation programs on the Qatar campus. "The panel of judges looks for evidence of research and a deep understanding of the subject," says Dr. Bendriss. "The two weeks spent in the research laboratories in New York are intellectually demanding, so we want the very best candidates who will get the most out of the experience."

So far, about 80 percent of winners have been offered admission to Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar. They include Faten Aqeel, now a member of the Doha campus's Class of 2018, who attended in summer 2011. "I can describe the experience simply as the door that allowed me to see the field of medicine in a different way," says Aqeel, who's contemplating a career in pediatrics. "In two weeks, I learned a lot about the advanced techniques used in Weill Cornell Medicine research laboratories and I got to shadow physicians in the clinic. I also attended meetings where physicians discussed patient cases, which helped immensely in providing the basics of the medical knowledge I wanted to have at a young age."

During their first round of presentations, the 2015 winners earned kudos for the command of research tools and basic science they'd gained in a single week. Speaking in teams of two, they demonstrated their newfound knowledge of topics ranging from the step-by-step preparation of cell cultures to the varied causes of asthma to the oxygen needs of babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. As Dr. Silver said in closing, before the students and guests gathered for a halal lunch: "It was a privilege working with these talented and special young women, who have very successful futures ahead of them."

— Beth Saulnier

Weill Cornell Medicine
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