Alumni profile - Samerah Saeed
Personally, I find the most exciting part of being a surgical trainee is learning how to operate. It is always a great feeling to have learnt or improved upon a skill. However, the most satisfying and humbling feeling is being able to contribute to a person’s wellbeing, or at least being able to support them in a time of difficulty. I am very honoured to have been able to work for the NHS throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why did you study Biochemistry at Queen Mary?
I hadn’t really set my intentions on a particular career path when I applied for university aged eighteen. I had a keen interest in the sciences, especially biological sciences but had been unsuccessful in gaining a place to study medicine. I was recommended biochemistry as an alternative science subject which had modules in physiology, immunology and virology in addition to topics in chemistry and physics. Studying biochemistry also kept the doors open for pursuing medicine later on.
Did you have a particular career path in mind?
When I applied for medicine after completing my degree in biochemistry, my initial intention was to pursue a career in ophthalmology (a branch of medicine and surgery which deals with the diagnosis and treatment of eye disorders).
What did you enjoy most about studying Biochemistry and then Medicine?
I really enjoyed the self-directed learning aspect that came with studying biochemistry. There was a huge amount of scope for pursuing my own academic interests. I also enjoyed the combination of laboratory and classroom-based teaching.
Studying medicine opened so many doors of opportunity. Over the course of my medical degree I was able to spend time in cardiothoracic theatres, shadowing a GP in a women’s prison, attend a mountain medicine course in Morocco and spend my elective in South America. I was also a part of the prehospital care programme for four years and attended emergency calls with the London ambulance service as well as London air ambulance crews.
Was there anything that surprised you in your studies?
I did not expect to meet people from such a vast array of backgrounds. It was great to get to know people who had very different life experiences to my own. I explored other cultures, religions, foods, literature and more. Gaining life experiences was the aspect of going to university that I had not really considered, but which I am very grateful for.
What aspects of your Biochemistry degree were relevant and supported you during your medical studies at Barts and The London?
Biochemistry provided me with excellent knowledge of scientific topics in biology and physiology. During medical school we covered these topics in a much shorter space of time and therefore having had the previous exposure certainly enabled me to keep up! I also found that I was more organised and better able to meet deadlines because I had developed time management and organisation skills from studying another degree.
Were there any academics that had a strong influence on shaping your time and studies?
There were so many! I really valued academics and clinicians who taught subjects of their own interests, it was clear that they were passionate about their area of expertise – this makes a huge difference as I found myself similarly being inspired and engaged by their style of teaching.
What were the biggest differences between the two degrees?
Biochemistry required more of a self-directed learning style and there was the opportunity to pursue your own area of interest. There was also more free time to partake in other aspects of university life, therefore I was able to work part time, participate in society activities and study at the same time.
However, medical school required complete commitment from 8am-5pm on most days as it was ultimately an apprenticeship. We also had regular assessments to prepare for. I did try to work part-time but this compromised my learning and became exhausting. Wednesday afternoons were the only time to really take part in societal activities.
It is paramount to have people from as many different backgrounds as possible working within the medical industry. We have seen in recent times how generalisations as well as lack of insight can lead to racial and gender inequality in care. Medicine itself is the result of the contributions of people from all around the world at different points in history and it continues in this way.
Which societies did you find the time to join during your Biochemistry and your Medicine degrees?
Whilst studying biochemistry I volunteered with PROVIDE, the student volunteer society at the time, I was part of QMUL Links - the student unit of St John Ambulance and I was a member of the Japanese society. I lead and participated in an annual fundraising event called Charity Week from 2007- 2013, which has raised millions of pounds for orphans and needy children around the world with Islamic relief. Joining societies and engaging with fundraising opportunities were a great way to meet new people, gain new skills and have fun!
Whilst studying Medicine I was a part of the anatomy society, I was women’s representative for the surgical society, and I was on the student staff liaison committee and prehospital care programme. These opportunities enabled me to develop transferable skills that have helped me in my career.
Why did you choose your specialism? What led you into this career path?
I enjoyed most of the specialities I was exposed to as a medical student and as a foundation year doctor. However, from my experience with the prehospital care programme I had already developed a keen interest in A&E medicine, anaesthetics and surgery. I found that the surgical work life suited my nature best and the variability of time in theatre, wards, clinic and endoscopy made the career more appealing. I also had an enthusiasm for general surgical operations. Towards the end of my foundation year training I began to focus on surgery as a career. However, it was during my core surgical training years in London that I fully committed to general surgery as a career.
What is most exciting about your role? And what are some of your daily responsibilities?
Personally, I find the most exciting part of being a surgical trainee is learning how to operate. It is always a great feeling to have learnt or improved upon a skill. However, the most satisfying and humbling feeling is being able to contribute to a person’s wellbeing, or at least being able to support them in a time of difficulty.
My daily responsibilities include ward rounds to review inpatient care and often there are clinics as well as endoscopy lists. There are also elective operations, which means that I regularly spend all day operating with a trainer. Surgeons work on a rota that consists of regular and on-call shifts. Therefore I frequently have 12-13 hour long shifts where I am on call either during the day or overnight. During this time I will care for patients presenting in an emergency situation. The long hours, especially the night shifts, and working weekends can be very challenging and are the least enjoyable aspect of a career in medicine.
Has your work been affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and how have you had to adapt?
My career has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Sadly, due to the pressures on the NHS the opportunities to gain operating experience have been impacted drastically. However, trainees have learned to adapt, in addition to being redeployed to other departments, there has been more opportunity to gain access to webinars, provide teaching and mentoring, as well as partake in research. It is very likely that many surgeons will have to extend what is already a long training pathway further in order to gain required competencies to complete training.
However, the priority at present is to work as a team and support one another to overcome the challenges of COVID-19 and provide the best care available to patients. I am very honoured to have been able to work for the NHS during this time.
Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options?
I cannot stress enough that it is ok to take your time and to also take time out to gain more experience. Your career will be a marathon, try to enjoy every step along the way, look after yourself and do not be in too much of a rush to get to the end. There may be challenges ahead such as social background and gender, these should not limit you from achieving the career of your dreams.
Have you faced any discrimination or bias based on your social background or gender in your career so far?
I have not faced discrimination directly based on my social background however, I was made aware of it when a colleague commented that I had done well from having studied at a state school. In retrospect I can see how opportunities for students can vary depending on where they went to school and parental income. I worked part-time during both of my degrees and I was very aware of my growing student debt throughout my studies.
Unfortunately, I have received comments throughout my career so far which although well intended, do not support a woman pursuing a career in surgery and could have led to me not continuing on this path. For example, I was advised to consider the impact a career in surgery could have on future family life. However, my view is that any career comes with its challenges and to not opt for a career based on events that may or may not happen is potentially doing yourself a disservice. It is important to be aware of the challenges of your career, but also equally important to pursue something that you enjoy and are passionate about.
Why do you think it is important that there is diversity and inclusion within the medical industry?
The medical world is global; medicine itself is the result of the contributions of people from all around the world at different points in history and it continues in this way. This is essential as it enhances our learning but also brings us together and enables us to serve humanity in the best way possible.
It is paramount to have people from as many different backgrounds as possible working within the medical industry. We have seen in recent times how generalisations as well as lack of insight can lead to racial and gender inequality in care. Furthermore, I feel that diversity and inclusivity encourage people to fulfil their potential and this is something we should all aim to do in our careers and in our personal lives.
Why would you encourage prospective students to study Biochemistry and/or Medicine?
If you have a passion for sciences and healthcare and want to work in a dynamic environment that will challenge you daily, medicine is a career that will provide that.
However, there are always alternative options; I recommend exploring other healthcare related careers that might also appeal to you. I am so glad that I studied biochemistry first, it gave me an appreciation for research, as well as a pathway into my medical degree. It also gave me a very different university experience.
What was special about your time at Queen Mary and Barts and The London? Can you give one or two examples of your most memorable moments?
I had the opportunity to make true friendships that have lasted beyond University. There is always a strong sense of camaraderie when I bump into the people I have studied with. I also enjoyed the fact that Queen Mary is a campus-based university and therefore despite living at home, I still fully enjoyed student life.
My most memorable moments were receiving QMSU Honours at the Colours and Honours Ball, in addition to a Fundraising Team of the Year award. It is great to see the effort you put into a project reflected in recognition by the institute. I also really enjoyed working as a student ambassador and gained many valuable and unique experiences.
Do you have any favourite spots across our Mile End and the Medical campuses?
My favourite spot at Queen Mary has to be Library Square, it is always buzzing with activity and often there were cake sales! My favourite spot at the medical campuses has to be the old Royal London Hospital. I was one of the last few medical students to have placements in the building before it closed and it is a source of pride to have had this opportunity considering its history. I was also fortunate to be able to visit the old and the new helipads and enjoy the view.
Lastly, in terms of your career, have you had any life-changing moments where you’ve realised you’re doing a job that you really love?
The most recent and significant moment has been when a relative was diagnosed with cancer. Despite the challenges of the pandemic the NHS have provided incredible care. Being on the other side of the patient experience has made me more grateful for the medical and nursing profession. I know that I have chosen the right career path.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield and Alumni Engagement Officer (Barts and The London), Sara Gazi. If you would like to get in touch with Samerah or engage her in your work, please contact email@example.com.