Interview with Atef Badji, MD, PhD candidate in Neuroscience and Transmedtech Fellow

Atef’s interest in neurodegenerative diseases and neurocognitive disorders stems from a series of personal and professional experiences.

Her goal is to develop treatments, diagnostics and a better understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, which is why she postponed her medical residency to pursue a career in neuroscience research.

Can you describe your research project in a few words?

Atef B. – As the population ages, it has become imperative to identify key factors that help maintain the quality of life of our seniors to ensure optimal aging. Stiffness of large arteries such as the aorta is a common condition that occurs with aging and results in vascular remodeling that can limit oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain parenchyma. My doctoral thesis project aims to better understand the effects of arterial stiffness on the brain of the elderly using several imaging techniques (e.g. diffusion and transfer magnetization imaging).

We have already published our first results in two scientific journals (NeuroImage and NeuroImage: Clinical) with data from our cohort of 70 individuals recruited through the participant database of the IUGM (Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal) research center. We plan to validate our results in the near future using data from a large British cohort (UK BioBank) to which we have requested access.

What does being a TransMedTech Trainee mean to you?

Atef B. – It’s having the chance to achieve my goals with the peace of mind of a good fixed salary. I consider it a real privilege to be able to get “paid” to LEARN.

You have gained international experience, can you tell us about your study period in Stockholm, your preparation before going and its significance in your neuroscience career?

Atef B. – Going to Sweden was like a dream come true for me. During my medical studies, I worked as a nurse’s aide and then as a nurse in retirement homes in France. At first, I wanted to work there to make up for not being there for my grandmother before she passed away, for not saying goodbye. I thought that working with the elderly would help me feel less guilty.

However, the choice of my professional future became obvious to me very quickly. Indeed, during these experiences, I witnessed the deadly impact of neurodegenerative diseases. I therefore decided to work to help the elderly as best I could. I wanted to take into account the daily life of the elderly, to improve their quality of life and to take care of their state of health for an optimal ageing despite the disease. For this, I decided to do a doctorate in research before starting my residency. The choice to do my internship in Sweden is motivated by my long-term desire to become a physician-scientist in Sweden, hopefully at the Karolinska Institute, one of the most important and renowned medical research centers and academic clusters in clinical geriatrics.

I therefore feel extremely fortunate that Dr. Eric Westman has agreed to take me on as an intern in the Division of Clinical Geriatrics at the Karolinska Institute in Huddinge.

To help me achieve my goals, I learned Swedish (C1 level) in order to obtain equivalence for my medical degree. My sister helped me a lot with this. She has been living in Sweden for about 2 years and she not only hosted me while I was learning the language, but also gave me a lot of advice on how to get my medical degree equivalency there, since she is a doctor herself.

How are you putting the Living Lab approach into practice here?

Atef B. – I am doing my doctoral thesis essentially between the Research Center of the Geriatric University Institute of Montreal (CRIUGM), the Functional Neuroimaging Unit of Montreal (UNF), the Clinical Research Institute of Montreal (IRCM), the Department of Pharmacology of the University of Montreal and the NeuroPoly laboratory at Polytechnique Montreal. I am fortunate to work with people with a wide range of expertise (e.g. physicians, neuropsychologists, engineers, statisticians etc.). So I practice the Living Lab approach on a daily basis without really thinking about it.

I don’t hesitate at all to turn to one of these people when I have a question that requires their expertise. Some of these people know each other very well, others had never worked together before. I see myself as a bridge between these different people and therefore these different disciplines. I think any student practicing the Living Lab approach feels the same way. Because of this, you not only learn more things but also learn faster. After 3 years of PhD, I can say that I am slowly becoming aware of my multidisciplinary knowledge compared to other students. I am also fully aware of my gaps. I don’t advance as fast as a student who focuses on one area for example. However, the Living Lab mode gives me all the tools I need to keep learning and improving. It never stops, and thankfully so!

What are you most proud of in your accomplishments? What is your next challenge?

Atef B.– Happiness is real only when shared (Christopher McCandless). I am proud of my daily life, having a supportive husband who helps me achieve my dreams. I have a long term goal and for the moment I have just acquired some of the necessary cards to get there, while having a lot of fun in what I do. My grandfather (born in 1903) was a pharmacist and had to rebuild his pharmacy twice because of the wars, the last time at the age of 60. Talk about a role model! I really try to honor his name. I think when I start my residency in the hospital, caring for patients, I might start to feel proud of myself. After all, it’s for them that I’m doing this.

What would you say to a TransMedTech fellowship applicant who is about to start their fellowship?

Atef B.– When I think of a research environment, a bunch of computers lined up between the four walls of a windowless room seems a bit outdated. On the contrary, the Living Lab approach is a place conducive to research and acts as a catalyst to break down the semi-transparent walls between the different expertises. What a joy to be able to do research in such an environment!

I recommend that 2020 candidates adopt the Living Lab approach from their first days in research, that they do not hesitate to ask questions, to go and find the most qualified person to answer them. You will be pleasantly surprised to find that most professors in the field respond with great enthusiasm and kindness to passionate students.

For the scientific publications and examples of scientific translations of Atef: consult