May 8, 2013

Youngest Graduating Doctor in The Region Has Noble Dreams

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Unlike most other toddlers Iqbal El Assaad’s favorite past time was reading a book or solving a mathematics equation. The little girl’s cognitive skills were so advanced that she learned algebra simply by sitting around her older siblings while they solved their homework.

With an aptitude for processing words and numbers that were not taught to her, it did not take long for Iqbal’s father to recognize that the youngest of his four children was intellectually gifted.

“I used to teach my children words and numbers to prepare them for school, but I never taught Iqbal to count. She would watch her siblings closely and learn from them,” said her father, Mahmoud Omar El Assaad. “I would teach her brother who was in sixth grade a mathematics equation, and Iqbal who was much younger would ask me to give her a similar equation which she would solve without difficulty.”

By the time she turned five, Iqbal’s intellectual prowess was widely acknowledged by teachers at her school in Lebanon, and they did their best to facilitate her development and growth by allowing her to skip several grades.

“I could read a journal in English and Arabic when I was five-years-old. The school principal once took me out of class so that I could read a complete lesson to students in Grade 5,” recalls Iqbal. “My father also believed that education and knowledge is number one, especially for a girl, so he taught us that education is what leads us to our goals… we had a really good educational environment at home.”

With insatiable curiosity and an inherent love of learning, Iqbal, who is of Palestinian origin, was determined to fulfill her noble childhood goal of becoming a doctor in order to provide medical care to Palestinian refugees who lived in camps and were less fortunate than herself.

“Since I was very young, I really wanted to help people. My family did not live in a camp, but we had family members who did and I used to visit them,” she says with empathy. “I became aware that they had a lot of medical needs and I felt that the best way to help them would be by providing family healthcare.”

So when the high-achieving student completed high school at the tender age of 12, the Minister of Education in Lebanon stepped in to help her secure the most competitive scholarships. Soon afterwards, several prominent individuals and universities came forward with promising offers that ensured Iqbal would receive an outstanding education.

“When they told me about the opportunity to study at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar and I read about the university and Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, I was very happy. Weill Cornell is known across the world for offering top medical programmes and I was really pleased to receive a scholarship from Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser,” she says.

Iqbal is now one of the youngest doctors in the world. The 20-year-old has earned her Doctor of Medicine degree from Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMCQ) and is exceptionally grateful to Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and to all the individuals who helped her along the way.

“I would really like to thank them for giving me this opportunity, because I never dreamed that I would be educated at one of the best universities in the world, so I extend a special thank you to Her Highness and to Qatar Foundation as a whole.”

Iqbal’s father was thrilled to see his daughter receive her degree alongside this year’s batch of 35 graduating doctors from WCMCQ. He said, “As a father, I can truly say that the world is not big enough to contain my pride or happiness. Several people were keen to support Iqbal along the way, but we felt that this would be the best course for her to take. Her Highness Sheikha Moza is recognized for her generosity and the university has a fantastic reputation, so it was the natural choice to make.”

The fresh graduate will be starting her residency at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic in the United States this summer and she hopes to specialize in pediatrics, with a long-term view to becoming a pediatric cardiologist.

“My plan is to do the residency and then do a fellowship. I am of course planning to come back to the Middle East after I train, since this field is not well developed in the region as a whole,” says the compassionate doctor. “Then I would like to join an academic health centre so that I can undertake research and teach other medical students so they too can become doctors one day.”

But Iqbal has not forgotten about the childhood dream she harbors and intends to continue working hard and with the utmost dedication until she realizes it. “My biggest dream is to come back to Lebanon and open a free clinic for the Palestinians in the camp and to help them out as much as I possibly can.”