Celebrating the Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies Convocation with Baraa Al-Khazraji

Baraa Al-Khazraji has experienced a tremendous amount of growth and success in the past five years.

Since completing her undergraduate education in 2009, Al-Khazraji has added the titles “trainee”, “nominee”, “award winner”, “wife” and “mother” to her list of roles and accomplishments.

Today, she will add one more: PhD.

“I just can’t believe this is real,” Al-Khazraji said, shaking her head in disbelief. “I’ve just thought about this moment so many times — it’s amazing that it’s finally here.”

Originally from Baghdad, Iraq, Al-Khazraji and her family moved to Windsor when she was quite young. After finishing high school there, she made the decision to move to London, leaving her family and friends behind.

But Western University soon became her new home — a place where she felt comfortable, welcomed and much more than the number found on her student card.

“I didn’t just fall in love with the science, I fell in love with the entire environment,” she explained. “The Department of Medical Biophysics is great, and everyone involved with it is friendly and supportive.”

“I feel like a lot of my success today is because of those people who have helped me along the way,” she added.

Al-Khazraji decided to stay at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry for her graduate training, with her sights set on completing a PhD in Medical Biophysics in five years.

During her PhD training, she looked at microcirculation and the role that the sympathetic nervous system plays in controlling how blood flow is distributed in skeletal muscle. Her projects involved a lot of mathematics, modelling and developing new methods and techniques, and she liked that the work could be applied to a living thing.

“I didn’t realize I had a niche for learning to develop things or learning to think about things in a new or different way,” she said. “I think my PhD training helped me harness those skills, and now I know I have an eye for those things.”

But those aren’t the only skills Al-Khazraji has taken away from her experience. She has grown as a writer and overcame her fear of public speaking, both of which have landed her multiple awards including the Alan C. Groom Award, the Alfred Jay Award for Cellular Cardiovascular Research, and first place for the 2013 London Health Research Day Platform Competition.

She has also learned to prioritize and manage her time.

“Before I was a mom, I didn’t realize how much time I wasted,” she said with a laugh. “You definitely learn to manage your schedule well when you’re up feeding your child multiple times in the night and have to work on your research in the morning.”

Even though the process did become more challenging once she and her husband had their daughter last summer, Al-Khazraji said it has made her feel more proud and thankful for what she has been able to accomplish.

“I feel very accomplished for completing the degree on time,” she said. “I feel honoured to be included in the category of successful mothers who have overcome challenges or accomplished something like this. It’s a big deal for me.”

Al-Khazraji recently began her postdoctoral fellowship in Kinesiology with supervisor Kevin Shoemaker, PhD. She will be focusing on osteoarthritis and cerebral vascular disease, studying blood flow in the big vessels to the brain. She will have the opportunity to learn new imaging techniques like ultrasound and move into research with humans.

“I now have more confidence and a lot of tools to bring forward into this position,” she said. “As much as I can take away from this lab I can also bring forward, which is a great feeling.”

Al-Khazraji is one of 100 trainees who will graduate during Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s School of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies convocation, taking place at 10:00 a.m. on June 11. The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry congratulates Al-Khazraji and the entire Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies Class of 2015 on their incredible achievements throughout their studies and on their graduation.