Aliaa Abdelhakim: Adds an MD to Her PhD from MIT 

Aliaa Abdelhakim has a foot in several worlds. Born in Saudi Arabia, she was raised in Kuwait, where her parents—physicians from Egypt—practiced medicine during and after the first Gulf War. She studied biochemistry at McGill, in Montreal, and eventually earned a PhD at MIT. During a postdoctoral fellowship, she studied rotavirus, a common and potentially lethal virus that largely targets children, while working as a medical interpreter in Arabic.

“As an interpreter, you’re immersing yourself in communication problems: what could go wrong, what could be clarified,” she says. “But you’re also interpreting issues that aren’t purely language-based—they’re cultural, too. For instance, in certain parts of the Arab world, it’s customary when treating a female patient to address questions to the male in the room. This can be jarring. Being an interpreter gives a very intimate view of patient interactions.”

These experiences have given Dr. Abdelhakim a unique and valuable perspective that informs her career in medicine. She credits graduate school for teaching her the art of patience, critical thinking, and how to work as part of a team. And from her parents, who imperiled themselves to practice medicine in a war zone, she learned “what it means to sacrifice your own well-being for your patients. They are my biggest mentors.”

Dr. Abdelhakim will begin a residency in ophthalmology at Columbia after completing an internship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She finds herself increasingly interested in how systemic diseases of the body affect vision and how they can be diagnosed by looking into the eye.

She wants to devote herself, much like the parents she hopes to emulate, to the people who need care the most. While at P&S, Dr. Abdelhakim worked in the Columbia-Harlem Homeless Medical Partnership free clinic, serving the destitute and forgotten. “I feel I owe the patients here a lot,” she says. “I would love to continue practicing in a place like New York, which has such a diverse and gracious patient population. Here you can treat everyone from all walks of life.”