Salam and hello friends!
I had no intention of getting to this post or series until later in the summer, but yesterday something happened that really touched my heart in multiple ways. So to get into the backstory, I was at the park with my daughter and she was doing her thing. I noticed an unfamiliar face in our tiny park: scarf-wearing youngish girl with a toddler, roughly the same age as Liyana. I walked over and said Salam and asked her in urdu if she was new to the neighbourhood and how old her daughter was. She told me that they had moved into one of the houses (10 or so houses down from ours) on our street and the toddler with her was her youngest sister. I immediately apologized for the misunderstanding and we continued to chat.
Her story is that she is the eldest daughter in 4 siblings and her family and her immigrated to Canada ~3 weeks ago and she will be starting high school in the fall.
In front of my eyes, a familiar scene flashed vividly: a 15 year old girl (oldest of three siblings), just immigrated to Canada with her family in 2004, adorned in her favourite shalwar kameez (it was purple and green!i miss it!) heading proudly and nervously to the park at the end of her street, and looking around for a familiar face to make this foreign land seem not so alien anymore.
I quickly got over my own nostalgia and asked her what she likes in school and her respsonse… you guess it – PSYCHOLOGY. She continued to state that she wants to become a Psychologist and that wasn’t really possible in Pakistan and she really wants to continue to get her master’s. I told her, “well you are in luck, your neighbour is a psychologist”!! To which she asked me all the questions an eager-minded, younger self probably asked someone else. I saw myself reflected in her youthful face and her story, apart from being similar to mine, inspired me to reassure her that she can do it and I am right down the street, if she needs any help at all.
So here I am, offering the same help and guidance to YOU if you are in this field or want to be in this field.
First let me give you a bit of a background to what exactly a Clinical Psychologist does. Clinical Psychology is a broad field which encompasses treating and diagnosing mental health disorders such as (and not limited to) anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and so forth. In Canada, communicating a mental health diagnosis is a strictly controlled act that ONLY a licensed Psychologist can provide. GP’s, psychiatrists etc can not and are not supposed to be providing these diagnoses. So for eg. if you were diagnosed with ADHD and had to prove that, your assessment and report would need to be from a licensed clinical psychologist. Clinical Psychologists also treat mental disorders through psychotherapy. We also provide psychotherapy to others who are not diagnosed with any disorder specifically, and are seeking therapy.
If you are in clinical psychology, in addition to diagnosing and treating mental health problems, you can also choose to specialize in neuropsychology (which is what I am doing) and focus on children, adults and/or seniors. The focus of my training has been on adults and seniors. Through this, I work with adult and seniors with a wide variety of neuropsychological problems such as epilepsy, stroke, dementia and assess their brain function and determine their strengths, weaknesses and impairments. Most of these tests are paper and pencil based with lots of “quiz/exam” like components. Often patients tell me that these tests remind them of when they were in school and they usually don’t like me much by the end of a 6 hour testing session.
Doing these kind of tests allows Clinical Psychologists to create a “profile” where we can answer questions like: how is patient X’s memory – if it is declining, what areas of memory are doing okay? How does this impact their every day life? What are somethings they can do differently to help them by using their strengths. This is just an example of the kind of questions we/I answer in a report format.
Sometimes, we look at whether the person can go back to work after a trauma and/or injury and if so, we often make recommendations for changes to be made in the workplace for success. Other times, I have worked with patients who have epilepsy and are going for surgery to remove the tissue in the brain that causes seizures – but before surgery, they need a baseline assessment for what their level of functioning is.
Now you may be wondering how does one get to this point, say if you are in highschool or in your undergraduate degree. I can’t speak for anyone else but my own experience and below is the path that I took:
First, I went to University of Toronto at Scarborough for a Bachelor’s of Science and completed a double major in Psychology and Neuroscience. While I was in my first year, I decided that medicine and other biology related fields were not for me. I wasn’t very bright at chemistry and physics so those were also out. So I started to focus on Psychology. I didn’t know how to be a psychologist and didn’t know any around me. So I did what I do best currently – I WENT ON GOOGLE!
Yes.. thats right. I googled from a library computer (I had a desktop computer at this point… which we all shared. The no-laptop, no-cell phone with data days. In fact I had a Motorola Razr fliphone which was all the rage back then). I looked up psychologists in local hospitals and then I started emailing them. With no plan, no experience and no idea what I would be doing with them, I started to write to them asking if they had space in their lab’s for a volunteer or paid position.
I must have sent at least a hundred emails to all kinds of scientists, psychologists etc. I heard back from one – who wasn’t a psychologist. He was an Engineer. A biomedical engineer to be honest and worked at Sunnybrook Hospital. They could offer me a paid position at $8.25 an hour (this was a whopping dollar above the $7.25 minimum wage at the time) and asked me for interview. I went there and I met two of the nicest supervisors, Sandra and Amy (who to this day, I speak to). I worked in this lab the whole summer, working as a research assistant, where I got my first taste of neuropsychological tests. I remember that summer so distinctly – I had received a grant for my first year of university and I saved that once I had the job in February (for the summer) and bought myself a 2001 Toyota Corolla in this beautiful hunter green. I named it Wilson (I was and am still obsessed with House!) and drove about an hour every day to Sunnybrook Hospital for my job.
Second year rolled around, and I wanted a similar job again. During the winter break of second year, I started my usual cold-emailing again. After another round of about 100 emails, I received an email back from Dr. Robin Green – she was a clinical psychologist at Toronto Rehab and was interested in working with me if I could get money of my own. This confused me a lot. What did she mean by that? Essentially, this was the first ever GRANT that i wrote – in second year!! We wrote an application asking for funding from a federal agency (NSERC if you are curious) for a project that I would do with her.
Guess who got the award? THIS GIRL. That first award, really opened all the doors for me. It got me to work with Robin – who to this day is my biggest inspiration and role model (she is now the Canada Research Chair in Traumatic Brain Injury). If you take away anything from my journey, there are two very important life lessons I learned early on:
Don’t be afraid of a NO. Be persistent in your emails and SOMEONE will get back to you.
Networking is EVERYTHING. I worked with Robin in second year – my current graduate supervisor was at that exact time retraining to be a psychologist and working with Robin to finish his PhD requirements. I met him back in 2006 as I went to meet Robin for a meeting. She introduced us – and from there on, every time I would run into him I would chat with him. When the time came, he remembered me.. more on that later!
I worked with Robin for several years after and really she guided me in so many ways. I published my first paper with her. I did my very first lab presentation in her lab.. I went to my first international conference supported by her. I met my current clinical supervisor in private practice in her lab. All in all, she really opened up many doors for me for which I am forever grateful to her.
Robin is truly a power house – I remember meeting with her once and being amazed at the knowledge she has and could tell me about. One such pivotal meeting with her was where I asked her, “how can I be you?” to which she laughed and then told me I had to go to a Clinical Psychology program and specialize in neuropsychology to do what I loved doing.
Thats when I knew, I just had to go on this path… but how would I do it? On the side, my to-be-fiance then (my husband now) and I were going to be getting engaged soon. How would this all (I had no clue it would be a PhD then) fit in the grand scheme of things? My husband since day 1, probably around then in 2008, when I told him that this is what I want to do, has only ever been supported. In my last year of my undergrad, we got engaged. I was 19 and he was 24. Such babies as you can see!
So here we are, newly engaged, finishing university… stay tuned to find out what happened next and get ready to meet the next powerhouse female scientist who played a monumental role in shaping me.