August 11, 2020

Syed “Sikandar” Raza named 2020 Finley Scholar

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Sikander Raza LRSyed “Sikandar” Raza, MS3, has been awarded the 2020 Sara Crews Finley, M.D., Leadership Scholarship, which provides full tuition for the third year of medical school and is renewable for the fourth year. The scholarship is awarded annually to a student who has excelled in academics, service and leadership. Raza’s achievement was recognized on August 11 via Zoom with members of the Finley family, who established the scholarship in 2015; the Raza family; Huntsville Regional Medical Campus (RMC) Dean Roger Smalligan, M.D.; and other Huntsville RMC leaders. Smalligan “presented” Raza with a new white coat bearing a special insignia identifying him as the Sara Crews Finley, M.D., Leadership Scholar.

“This year’s selection process was a bit unusual, since COVID-19 limitations required us to meet and interview our finalists on Zoom,” said Sara J. Finley, daughter of Sara Crews Finley, M.D., and Wayne H. Finley, M.D., Ph.D. “One thing remained constant, however: We had outstanding candidates apply and interview for the scholarship.

“Sikandar has such an extraordinary life story, time and again overcoming obstacles on his path to becoming a physician. He has an exemplary record of leadership, community service and academic achievement, and an extraordinary dual passion for surgery and health equity. We are proud to welcome Sikandar to our community of Sara C. Finley, M.D. Leadership Scholarship recipients.”

The following is a Q&A with Raza, where he discusses his background, how he first became interested in medicine and what it means to him to join the ranks of Sara Crews Finley, M.D., Leadership Scholars.

Tell us about your hometown and background.

I was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan – which is about the size of New York City – until I was 13. My time in Pakistan was instrumental in the person I am today, as I carry those cultural values instilled in me by my family and grandparents. My dad moved to the U.S. in the early 2000s, and my family had to wait years for our immigration status to be approved before joining him in 2010. Hence, I had to learn the importance of responsibility early on in life, helping to take care of my four younger siblings.

When I moved to Trussville in 2010, it was a culture shock to say the least. My time in high school was anything but straightforward, not only due to the cultural barriers but also being one of the few Muslim students in a school of about 1,500. Naturally, this put an unwanted spotlight on me and I received hurtful remarks and actions from my peers. However, amongst these moments, I found mentorship and support from my teachers, and great friends who looked past differences and accepted me as a person. They truly showed me how to treat individuals and care for those that are different than myself. These experiences have stuck with me throughout my life and allow me to be resilient in moments of uncertainty, persevere through prejudice and value diversity.

I completed high school in Trussville and went to Vanderbilt University for college where I studied neuroscience and chemistry before coming to UAB for medical school.

When did you become interested in medicine?

I became interested in medicine at an early age. My interest originated when I was growing up in Pakistan during the war on terror, when civilian life was in turmoil. In those moments of violence and chaos, physicians were the ones the community looked to to take care of a society that was hurting. Since then, I valued physicians as heroes and role models who have the power to shape communities, and this initial impression is the basis of why I pursued medicine and how I want to practice medicine.

In high school, I had the opportunity to be a part of the Biomedical Sciences Academy under Dr. Chris Walters, who helped me expand my views of healthcare occupations, develop and conduct independent research projects and replicate different procedures such as a heart dissection. It was the mix of my background in Pakistan and my scientific interests in high school that I continued in college that led me to pursue medicine.

Are there any common themes in your extracurricular interests and volunteer activities as a medical student?

I think there are three major themes that my extracurriculars encompass: mentorship, service and scholarship. I consider myself extremely lucky to be at a medical school that values those ideals and offers students the flexibility to pursue their passions.

In terms of mentorship, I have been a part of the school’s admissions committee, where I sat on panels for students that were applying to medical school, gave tours to interviewees and was a Multiple Mini Interview rater last year. I also was part of the Academy of Health Sciences program, which is a high school mentoring program where we work with students on ACT prep and biology, and introduce them to health fields.

I have also been fortunate to work extensively with Equal Access Birmingham (EAB), the medical student-run free clinic, as one of the fundraising co-chairs. It has been so rewarding to work with and advocate for patients who are uninsured and have limited access to care. It has been really enlightening in helping me understand social determinants of health in a hands-on way; for example, how limited access to transportation can limit someone’s access to their medications for an extended period of time. My fundraising team and I worked to raise over $25,000 dollars through the EAB 5K, silent auction and miscellaneous fundraising efforts, all to help cover the costs of medications in the clinic.

My interests in health disparities and health equity led me to become part of the Health Equity Scholars program, which provides support and training for medical students who plan to work with underserved populations. I was also chair of the Public Health Interest Group. We trained students on administering naloxone through the Jefferson County Department of Health and had panel discussions on health insurance policies, nonprofit resources in Birmingham and reproductive health.

Cricket is a personal interest of yours – can you tell us about your involvement in the sport?

My friends might say cricket is an obsession rather than an interest. I was introduced to the sport when I was growing up in Pakistan and, like many others, played on the streets and at family get-togethers. When I moved to Trussville, there were not many Southeast Asian families and I felt I had to forego the cultural interests that were important to me, especially cricket, to fit in. When I went to Vanderbilt, I was pleasantly surprised that there was a club cricket team and I signed up instantly. I played all four years of undergrad and created great memories with lifelong friends and mentors. With such a positive experience, I knew cricket would be something I would take with me in my life and when I entered medical school, I joined the UAB team and we have been playing for the local league for the past few years.

Cricket has always been so much more to me than a sport – don’t get me wrong I am competitive and like to win – but it is the shared cultural identity and the relationships I have fostered over the years with my teammates that I value so highly and have guided me through different obstacles in life. Upon entering medical school, there is always a lot of fear about maintaining wellness and hobbies. While I am not as heavily involved as I was in undergrad, the curriculum at UAB has allowed me to continue these interests.

What does being named the Sara Crews Finley Leadership Scholar mean to you?

Learning about Dr. Sara Crews Finley and her legacy, what resonated with me was the unrelenting combination of excellence, perseverance and prioritizing the community. At a time when there were not many female physicians, much less female physician-scientists, Dr. Finley broke the glass ceiling and paved the way for others to follow. This must not have come without challenges but in spite of that, she carried on and excelled in caring for patients and conducting genetics research that had a significant impact for future generations.

Her life has been characterized by a lot of firsts, something I could relate to when I received my white coat as a first-generation immigrant and the first person in my family to go to medical school here in the U.S. Rather than letting my background and experiences limit or define me, I used them as motivation to excel in whatever I did and serve the community that has offered me support and mentorship throughout.

It is an incredible honor for me to receive the scholarship named for someone so inspiring. To me, being a Finley Scholar means being a lifelong mentor to those who are starting their journeys in medicine, and creating a path forward for those who are underrepresented in medicine. Most importantly, it will remind me to put my community and those who are less fortunate first as I pursue my career.