Arash Algouneh (@aalgouneh)
Age: 23| Profession: Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology Master’s Student
Arash is a studious, intelligent individual pursuing a career in medical sciences that will truly make an impact on our generation. He maintains a professional look 99% of the time, but once you get to know him you’ll find out he can be quite friendly and warm! When he’s not at the lab, you can find him hanging out with his friends, girlfriend and university dragon boat team, UCDBC.
Read more about Arash and his thoughts on our generation in today’s Millennial Spotlight.
Answers provided by the participant in this interview are paraphrased.
First things first, how are you doing today?
I’m doing well! Just a bit tired. It was one of my lab mate’s birthday last night, so we went to her house and drank a little bit. Then I had to wake up early this morning for a dragonboat meeting.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
On a weekday I would typically wake up in the morning, shower, get ready, and then catch the subway to get to the lab at MaRS for around 9:30AM. Once I’m at the lab I am doing something different everyday based on what my schedule calls for that day. I don’t have a set schedule, so I decide what I’m going to do kind of like a free-for-all. Right now, I’m wrapping up my project so I’m doing final experiments. Other things I would be doing is talking to lab mates or my professor. I would take a lunch break, a coffee break, chat with people here and there, and then I usually finish around 6-6:30PM.
After work, if I still have work from my lab then I would stay downtown a bit longer. If not, I would see my friends or go to the gym – it changes based on my mood. I usually get home around 9:30-10PM. When I’m on the subway I’ll read books or something like that.
I’m curious, what book are you reading right now?
It’s called the Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett. I like reading science fiction, and sometimes fantasy novels. The reason I started reading was to study for the verbal section of the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) where you have to read a passage of any topic and answer questions based on that passage. When I was reading tips about how to do well in this section, people recommended that I just read in general. I found that it’s kind of boring at the beginning of a book, but there’s a point where you are really interested in what’s going to happen next so I would keep reading. Even after taking the MCAT, I continued to read frequently. I don’t really watch Netflix anymore, I mostly spend time reading. I feel like if I’m watching Netflix for four hours then I would be kind of guilty about it, but if I read for four hours then I wouldn’t feel as guilty.
Did that strategy end up helping for the MCAT?
Yeah, actually it did! I did better than I expected on the verbal section.
Can you tell me about the work you are doing in your lab?
My lab specifically studies breast and ovarian cancer. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, but ovarian is one of the worst types of cancer because it is really aggressive. If individuals have a mutation of the BRCA1 gene, then they have a predisposition for developing breast or ovarian cancers because this genetic mutation develops into tumours. It’s about 1 in 8 women that develop breast cancer, but if you have this genetic mutation then you are much more likely to develop it.
My lab tries to figure out how the tumour cells are functioning to find out which drugs will work to cure patients with these cancers. We see these genetic mutations as a susceptibility – kind of like an achilles heel – that you can target to kill the tumors. I am working on a project to identify susceptibilities in these tumours which could lead to later developing a drug to target and kill it. I did identify a gene that can potentially be targeted as a therapy, but I am currently trying to figure out why cells die when you target these genes.
Do you treat cancer patients in your lab?
No, I work with human cancer cell lines that are from patients who get their tumours removed. Their cells are then cultured in a dish for the experiments. I also work with mice in my lab. Everything is really humane in the lab – the mice are properly housed and well treated based on stringent ethics guidelines. It’s actually very hard to work with animals if you are a lab, because you have to go through a rigorous process to get approval for your work. From working with mice, I found if we remove a certain protein, which is a by-product of the gene, that the cells from the tumour shrank. We tested this with mice and they were well after the protein was removed.
Do you see yourself staying in research in the long-term?
I’m hoping that my research will lead somewhere, but with science it’s hard to predict how things are going to go. I may or may not be in research in the future, but regardless I know I’m going to try to push my research and findings with breast and ovarian cancer as far as I can. In the end, this work is all about the patients and how it will impact them so that is my top concern right now. I do enjoy research, but I don’t see myself doing it for the rest of my life. Maybe one day when I am a physician I could have my own research lab, but everything is very up in the air right now.
Aside from work, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I like reading, going to the gym, working on dragon boat stuff, hanging out with my girlfriend, hanging out with my friends… it’s pretty standard. It’s kind of like what everyone else does. I also volunteer my time with school clubs. For example, I host an event every semester in MaRS for students that are in the same program as myself. We would socialize at this event about our program over pizza.
To get a little more personal: What do you consider as some of the most important things to you? What do you value the most in life?
The definition of what is the most important to me has changed over the years. At the beginning of university, it was mostly my career, but as school has progressed and I’ve become more mature I realize that my relationship with friends, my girlfriend, and my family is more important to me. Obviously school is important, but it’s not my highest priority. Before it was only school that I prioritized, and it’s not like I don’t value school at all, it’s just that I realize that other things are just as important in my life and that I might lose certain moments and never get them back, so I try to appreciate those things more. What’s important to people changes throughout their life. People change, and their perspectives change.
What do you think is the best quality about you?
As I’m getting older, I’m realizing that there is a bigger picture that I need to understand that is more important than little things that impact my life. When I get bad news, I’m able to look past it pretty quickly and find solutions. Don’t get me wrong, I still get affected by bad things that happen to me, but I feel like I’ve gotten better at dealing with them. I have bad days that I realize are out of my hands, so I just have to look for solutions. For example, if there’s an experiment that I put a lot of time and energy into and it doesn’t end up working out, then I just have to take that in and come back the next day with new solutions.
What would you call that trait?
I would say it’s being persistent, or resistent? It’s a trait that is all about not beating myself up when things go wrong, and just trying again and again until things work out for me.
Do you have any traits that you might share with other millennials?
One thing I would say is: impatience. I think a lot of millennials are impatient, and I don’t think it’s our fault because we have unlimited access to technology. For instance, if you are in an argument with your friend and you want to know who is right, then you just google the answer. It wasn’t like that a hundred years ago. With whatever we do, we want instant gratification for it. This is pretty common with every millennial I talk to. We just want things instantaneously. In certain respects, with us having more access to technology, millennials are able to think quickly on their feet. You’re basically connected and you can find out anything you want, anytime you want. This has its ups and downs too. I think it’s just a by-product of the time we live in.
In your near future, what are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to hearing back from med school. I guess I’m just waiting to see where life is going to take me. Other than that, I am looking forward to finishing up my master’s degree.
What are the main thoughts occupying your mind right now?
There’s some uncertainty in my life right now in terms of school. I don’t really know what’s going to happen in five years – I may be in school, I may not. I may be in Canada, or I may be in the U.S. Honestly, I don’t know.
Thanks for chatting with me Arash! Do you have any final messages you would say to readers?
I would say that people should just remember their final goals. You have to take a look at the big picture and realize that in the grand scheme of things, some things that are happening right now might not be as important as you think.