SUBJECT: Mohamed Abo Aoun–Award-winning alumni (class of 2018)

Mohamed Abo Aoun in front of Wesley Hall at UWinnipeg

Why did you choose to major in Biopsychology? Was there a course that inspired your interest in this area or did you come to UWinnipeg with the intention to ultimately go onward to medical school? Why did you choose to study at UWinnipeg rather than at another university?

After going through four and a half years of medical school in Saudi Arabia, I realised that living there was not something that I saw myself being able to do, especially as a Palestinian. I decided to look up different universities in Canada. I was looking for a program that would combine my passion for the natural sciences and curiosity about human behaviour. That was when I stumbled upon the Biopsychology program that was offered at the University of Winnipeg. I looked up Dr. Bruce Bolster’s bio, and was greatly impressed by his expertise. Knowing about the small class sizes and the relatively more affordable education only served to augment my desire to transfer to the UW. I always knew I wanted to go to medical school after losing my father as a child to a surgical error, and initially thought of the UW as the best place to grant me the undergraduate education I needed to move on. However, thanks to the wonderfully passionate faculty and their commitment to performing cutting-edge research, I decided that an M.D. would not be enough for me; I now plan on applying for the M.D./PhD joint program.

What has been your experience in the City of Winnipeg? When you pined for home and family, how did you manage to continue your studies?

I hadn’t done much research about the city of Winnipeg before moving here, but I do remember googling the name a week prior to my flight and finding an image contrasting the weather here to that on Mars… To say that I was apprehensive about the -53°C weather would be an understatement. Little did I know that I’d end up meeting the nicest people this world has to offer, by far! Winnipegers truly are hidden gems in our world, and we could use much more of them. Thanks to their kindness, I was able to develop a strong and supportive social circle fairly quickly, and the cold didn’t seem as a steep price to pay for being surrounded by them. My friends and family from back home never hesitated to throw support my way either, always reminding me that they will always be there if I ever needed them. Not only that, but how many people can say they went to school in the city Winnie the Pooh was named after?

Was there a nadir or zenith (during your undergraduate degree) that you want to share? If there were some challenging times, what helped you persevere?

Each year at the UW came with its own set of peaks and slumps. Being an extrovert meant that I hungered for a social life, which required a couple of months to cultivate (it felt like forever). Conversely, I was in a new city with societal norms that I felt my values were more aligned with, meaning I could finally freely express myself.

The courses were no walk in the park either; I still laugh at how daunting every organic chemistry test and PSYC-4100 assignment felt. While those courses were definitely difficult, the stress they caused does not compare to dealing with constantly renewing permits and wondering about your fate. I once got stuck in Saudi due to a misunderstanding at the border, causing me to miss three weeks of school. When I had finally made it back here, not only did I have to prepare for term tests, but I also found out that my grandpa had passed away. I had never felt so distant from all my family as the day I heard the news, but I found solace in the friends I made here. They never hesitated to throw support my way. Thanks to them, I was able to get back on track and keep my head straight.

Finally…thesis year. Being a Biopsychology student meant that I had the option of doing either a biology thesis, or a psychology one. Being the person that I am, I decided to do both at the same time while also taking three other courses each semester. It sounded like a good idea at the time for some reason. I had no idea what was in store for me. Juggling all these things at once was the first time I realised I may have stretched myself too thin. At times, the obstacles felt overwhelmingly daunting, and I was always filled with doubts about my ability to overcome them. With the constant support of my family, friends, and supervisors, I was able to push through and finally complete my degree. My supervisors, Dr. Bolster for my psych thesis and Dr. Shrivastav for my bio thesis, were such a joy to work with, and each research project was incredibly interesting to me. The scholarships I received along the way were great incentives for me to keep pushing myself. The convocation awards were remarkably humbling, and helped confirm that I had indeed made the right choice for myself.

While waiting to become a permanent resident to be able to apply for medical school, I am now working as a repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) technician at St. Boniface Hospital to treat patients with psychiatric disorders, mainly Major Depressive Disorder. My time here has been brief, but it has made me realise how much more we still need to do to raise awareness about mental health issues. We have a long way to go, and I am confident our education will help us get there.

Do you have any advice for prospective and current students?

For all the students out there, both prospective and current, I just want to say to not underestimate yourselves. Figure out what your goals are and determine the best path to achieve them. Said path may not be easy, but that should not be the metric by which the validity of your dreams are determined. I genuinely believe every person is uniquely gifted to help mankind in one way or the other. I found my calling in the health field (both physical and mental) and research. Find your own calling, learn to trust your friends, family, and colleagues to support you when you’re down, and achieve your dreams!

We wish you all the best in your future studies, Mohamed!