U of T MD/PhD student Amanda Khan was recently selected as one of Canada's Most Powerful Women.
She joined other U of T women who made the 2016 list of Women's Executive Network (WXN)'s Top 100, including Rotman School of Management Professor Beatrix Dart, alum Kathleen Taylor and former dean of the School of Continuing Studies Marilynn Booth.
Khan, an MD student in the Faculty of Medicine and PhD student in U of T's Institute for Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering, was recognized in the TELUS Future Leaders category, which acknowledges exceptional young women who distinguished themselves early in their careers, and demonstrate tremendous potential to continue making their mark in the years to come. She spoke with writer Tabitha Chan about what it means to have extraordinary female role models.
What are you passionate about?
Mentorship of underrepresented minority students is a particular passion of mine, because as an immigrant, female student (whose parents were very poor when we came to Canada), it was a rough go for me trying to figure out all the different components of what makes a successful medical school applicant. I worked with Ike Okafor with U of T's Office of Health Professions Student Affairs (OHPSA) to develop the Research Application Support Initiative (RASI) as part of the Community of Support, which aims to increase outreach to Black Canadian students and ultimately increase the number of black medical students at U of T.
We started RASI just this year to help minority and underrepresented students find research positions so they have research experience when applying for graduate or medical school. The program helps students who are in the same position as I was in, and just need a little help finding resources. We have students in RASI from universities across Ontario, and maybe next year, we can expand even further.
What advice would you give to a young female aspiring to become a clinician scientist?
The advice I would give is: a) find a mentor who inspires you to work hard – one that believes in you and pushes you to achieve more than you thought you ever could. I had an excellent mentor who encouraged me to apply to the MD/PhD program who mentored me throughout undergrad and during my master's degree. b) start thinking about this career path early. It’s beneficial to start from the first year of undergraduate to cultivate the necessary grades, volunteer work and research experience needed to gain entry into the program.
Why do you think it’s essential to have strong female role models and to recognize women who are leaders in their field?
It's particularly important to have female role models so, as a female yourself, you can say: ‘she did it and so can I.’ When I was applying to medical school, many of the MD/PhD websites I browsed from various schools featured mostly pictures of male students. I didn't see myself reflected and subconsciously, I didn't think it was a program for me. It wasn't until my mentor encouraged me to apply (as she herself was admitted to an MD/PhD program) that I finally thought of myself as a candidate.
Recognizing women who are leaders in their field is essential because women of all ages, races and backgrounds need a diverse range of female heroes. Not everyone wants to become a doctor, lawyer or dentist, and to see women being leaders in many different roles such as in a traditionally male-dominated field like construction is key for bringing about change. It's meaningful for women to see themselves reflected in all fields of society.
What is the focus of your PhD? What made you passionate about surgical engineering?
I’m currently finishing up my PhD and hope to defend my thesis soon. The focus of my PhD is on making surgery safer. One of the biggest problems we have in general surgery is that with the switch to laparoscopic tools, surgeons no longer directly use their hands to touch tissues. Using laparoscopic tools is tricky and understanding how much pressure you are putting on tissues is hard. This can lead surgeons to inadvertently use too much force and damage delicate tissues, such as the small bowel. I designed a device to measure how much force laparoscopic tools exert on tissues and have been quantifying what forces are ‘safe’ and what is damaging. I am also working on a patent for a novel laparoscopic tool design that would automatically limit the surgeon to only using safe amounts of force.
What is an obstacle you've had to overcome?
My research has never been performed in humans before so it has been very challenging to set up my studies. Ethics was a particularly tough feat, as you can imagine. Making tools that don't exist yet and creating novel research protocols is very difficult.
What do you hope to accomplish after graduation?
I hope to become a surgeon-scientist. I would like to continue my research throughout my residency training, and once I am a staff surgeon, I want to be the principal investigator of my own biomedical engineering laboratory. I want to make surgery as safe as possible.
How does it feel to receive a Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 award?
I was extremely honoured that I would be chosen for such an award. The other winners are amazing women, and I can't believe I get to be amongst them. I think winning this award, especially as an immigrant and ethnic minority, is important to show young women of all backgrounds, that they can do anything they put their mind to.