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Med student chooses path of physician-scientist

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Posted: Sunday, January 5, 2014 10:45 am

Medical students know the importance of research. It can bring new perspectives, knowledge and experiences to their studies. Third-year University of Arizona College of Medicine — Phoenix student Wala Awad has taken his love for research to the next level by deciding to become a physician-scientist. Wala will not only help others using his medical knowledge but will also continue to conduct scientific research that can help patients across the globe.

Wala is currently pursuing an academic research year at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. Barrow is internationally-renowned for its research and treatments relating to the neurosciences. The neurosurgery residency program at Barrow is the largest and most sought-after in the world.

“The culture here at the Barrow Neurological Institute is one of collaboration,” Wala said. “I’ve had no problems approaching the neurosurgeons, the residents and the research staff. They’ve all been great and instrumental in my training and helping me gain the resources I need to accomplish the goals that I had coming here.”

Wala hopes that his research can help impact the way future physicians treat patients. “Basic science research is important because it allows us to understand the ways that diseases work, and by gaining that understanding we can then develop therapies that we can bring to the bedside that will ultimately help impact human survival and quality of life,” he said.

“The other important aspect of research is that it’s part of the larger global community,” Wala continued. Research can impact the world at large by helping others understand disease and apply this new knowledge in remote areas.

“Ultimately why I decided to pursue medicine was to solve these type of problems,” Wala said of treating an unknown disease in a patient. “Training just as a clinician is important and you can have a large impact on peoples’ lives, but we still need people to put in the work in terms of answering these basic science questions.”

Wala grew up in Tempe and graduated from McClintock High School, then pursued a degree from Arizona State University before deciding to come to the UA College of Medicine — Phoenix. “Arizona is my home,” he said.

Wala was attracted to the Phoenix campus because of its emphasis on research and the opportunities the college offers in connecting with local hospitals. Wala hopes to be a part of medical student education and research at the UA after completing his neurosurgery training.

“Part of what makes research exciting to me is being challenged to explore new ideas and seeing the full spectrum of patient care,” he said. “Not only will I get to take care of patients at the bedside, but I’m gaining the basic science understanding and then being able to take those problems that we can’t solve and come up with a solution here at the lab bench.”

Dr. Joan Shapiro, the associate dean for research at The University of Arizona College of Medicine — Phoenix, echoed Wala’s sentiments on the importance of research.

“Basic medical science is really important to the health care of individuals because unless you understand the basic mechanism of a disease, you have no way of trying to treat it,” she said. “Basic research in a college setting is exploring the unknown.”

• April Fischer is with the University of Arizona College of Medicine — Phoenix. Reach her at

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