Dr. Shahidul Islam (pictured left) likes doing research just as much as he likes taking care of patients. This Bangladeshi native came to the United States in the fall of 1993 to attend graduate school in Ohio, and since then has lived the American dream. Although he wears the hats of physician and researcher, he still finds the time to take part in his favorite sport--tennis--and enjoy a fulfilling family life. It's apparent from his smile that Dr. Islam thoroughly enjoys what he does for a living. Just mention of the words "molecular biology" or "pathology" and he is transformed into a walking recruitment ad for young academic physicians. "You have to be passionate about your work because you must spend many years in training," says Dr. Islam. "If you don't like what you do, you're not going to benefit your patients, your field of study, or yourself."
Dr. Islam will be joining the department of pathology at Northwestern Memorial University Hospital in Chicago in November. He is excited about the move because it gives him an opportunity to learn more about his chosen discipline and to teach the next generation what they need to know to enter the fight against cancer.
How does he balance all of the demands on his time? He graciously allowed me to document the "whirlwind" that is his life both professionally and personally. He is an inspiration to scientists of color around the world because he is an example of the old adage, "it's not where you're from that's important, it's where you're going."
Dr. Islam received his medical degree in Bangladesh but decided to leave to pursue an interest in research. "At the time, pathology was not seen as a desirable discipline in my country because medical training was geared more towards general preventive medicine," he says. He hated leaving his family and friends behind, but he had to see what the world of research had to offer. Luckily, he would only have to wait a few months before his wife would join him in Ohio. He packed his bags and headed for America.
The first few months of being in the States were difficult. In addition to being homesick, he had to deal with a few people, including other physicians, who considered his foreign medical degree to be less than adequate. "I didn't understand why they felt that way. I took the same classes they did and had an excellent record. In any event, I ignored the negative comments and used that energy to press on with my studies." Such condescending views were rare, however; Dr. Islam stresses that most of the people in those early days were kind and that he has pleasant memories of the transition. He loves the U.S. because of the many opportunities it offers people like him for advancement in medicine and the sciences.
As a doctoral student in the lab of Drs. Margaret Wheelock and Keith Johnson at the University of Toledo, Dr. Islam focused on identifying a link between cadherins (a family of cell adhesion proteins) and tumorigenesis (start of cancer cell formation). This notion was novel at the time. He explains, "cadherins were mostly known for their role in the maintenance of normal tissue structure. They had two main functions--to connect the outside of the cell to the cytoskeleton and connect one cell to another. I was certainly surprised when I found the expression [production of protein] of one particular class of cadherins, N-cadherin, resulted in the disruption of cell-cell contacts. These newly separated cells would then become invasive."
Dr. Islam saw this phenomenon occur in cell culture and in some samples from patients with head and neck cancers. His research found that these cells were not normal in the sense that their "self-destruct" mechanism had been disabled. These cells would be free to travel to other parts of the body and prompt other cells to become cancerous.
Dr. Islam's discovery was published [S. Islam, T. E. Carey, G. T. Wolf, M. J. Wheelock, and K. J. Johnson, "Expression of N-Cadherin by human squamous carcinoma cells induces a scattered fibroblastic phenotype with disrupted cell-cell adhesion," J. Cell Biol. 135(6), 1643 (1996)] and since then he has gone on to author or co-author other articles on the subject. After completing his PhD, Dr. Islam decided to continue working on the molecular causes of cancer involving cadherins. "I wanted to specialize in pathology because it was one of the few disciplines that mixed clinical and basic science. My strong background in cell and molecular biology allows me to be competitive and places me among the few physicians that have basic research experience. With my background, I hope to make a tremendous impact upon disease diagnosis and decisions involving clinical management."
As a pathology resident at the Medical College of Ohio School of Medicine and a cytopathology fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dr. Islam enjoyed explaining his job to patients. He says, "Cytopathologists spend most of the workday in the lab looking at cell and tissue slides, so I really relished the opportunity to get out and speak with patients." When asked about his "bedside manner," he contends that he doesn't resemble the popular notion that scientists are self-absorbed, science geeks with no social skills. "I'm just a regular guy who happens to have terminal degrees. My patients feel comfortable around me because of my down-to-earth manner."
Dr. Islam understands that as a pathologist, the role he plays in patient care and management is pivotal. "I personally perform the biopsies on patients. These tissue samples tell a physiological story," he explains. "If I examine cells which exhibit even a slightly abnormal morphology, I immediately consult the physician of record and take more samples. Although there is no cure for cancer, early diagnosis and treatment is the next best thing."
Keeping It Real
Dr. Islam gives a modest reply when asked about how he stays sane with everything going on in his life. He gives most of the credit to his family. "I have a loving wife, Rafat, who also holds an MBBS/PhD, and two beautiful daughters. Nayaar, age 5, and Ayaan, 1 month, are my heart. My family is what keeps me grounded. I've truly been blessed." In addition, Dr. Islam, who was the Bangladeshi National Junior Tennis Champion in 1984, believes in exercise. He says staying physically fit helps keep the mind and body strong.
Dr. Islam's best advice to prospective academic clinicians: "Find a discipline/specialty you like and dive in. One possible outcome of dedicating years of hard work would be winning a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, but having the personal satisfaction of helping a fellow human being who is sick and in need is the best fulfillment anyone can have."
Robin Arnette, Ph.D., is editor of MiSciNet and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .