Obada Alzqhool is a doctoral candidate at the University of Turku.

From Master’s degree studies to a career in research – interview with Doctoral Candidate Obada Alzghool

Sometimes studies in a Master’s degree programme spark an interest in a career in research. Obada Alzghool started his journey at the University of Turku as a Master’s degree student in the Drug Discovery and Development programme and is now a doctoral candidate at the University. In this blog post, Obada shares with us crucial pieces of advice for a smooth Ph.D. journey and his experience as a doctoral candidate at UTU.

Obada Alzghool was born and raised in Jordan. He is a pharmacist by education and worked as a medical representative in Novartis. Later on, he decided to continue his higher education and pursue a scientific research career, so he studied in the Drug Discovery and Development Master’s degree programme at the University of Turku.

Obada’s research topic is the development of novel PET radiotracers as imaging biomarkers in brain neurodegenerative diseases, mostly Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Imaging altered protein aggregates and neuroinflammatory markers using the PET technique help understand their implication in neurodegenerative diseases. His current research focus is the biological evaluation of novel small molecule PET radiotracers as well as characterization of rodent disease models.

Alzheimer’s disease causes a lot of suffering not only to the patients themselves but also to their loved ones. I decided to start doing something about it.

How did you end up in this field of research?

“In a nutshell, my research topic entails imaging biological targets in the brain with radioactive molecules. It’s an area with vast unmet medical needs where neurodegenerative proteinopathies such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are still lacking definitive diagnostic tools. I work on evaluating candidate imaging probes for positron emission tomography using rodent disease models and human brain tissue. Such tools allow detecting and mapping misfolded proteins in the brain, which ultimately could make early diagnosis feasible, and improves patient recruitment to clinical trials.

In fact, my motivation for research in neurodegenerative proteinopathies was triggered by a movie called “Still Alice’’. The movie shows the story of a distinguished university professor suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. This story made me realize how much suffering Alzheimer’s disease can cause not only to the patients themselves, but also to their loved ones. I decided to start doing something about it. Thereafter, I started seeking internship opportunities in a research laboratory where I can do research on this topic. In 2016, I started a research internship at Turku PET Centre working on characterizing a novel tau PET radiotracer in Alzheimer’s disease mouse model.”

As a doctoral candidate, how do you experience the doctoral programme?

“I do believe that the drug research doctoral program (DRDP) operates at a high-quality calibre, thanks to the steering committee members and programme coordinators. The training trajectory is planned in a very diverse and flexible manner, yet relevant to all biomedical research topics. Also, the utilized follow-up system including the advisory committee and the annual report helps the doctoral candidates to stay on track and put their effort and time towards the productive activities of the doctoral studies.”

I expect that getting my Ph.D. from the University of Turku would open new venues for me in academic institutions and relevant industries.

Why did you apply to a doctoral programme at UTU?

“Many factors encouraged me to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Turku. One may mention all the – nowadays – standard factors, such as high-level research, cutting-edge facilities, and so on. However, I would like to highlight two main factors that stood out to me the most: the people and the healthy atmosphere. I cannot stress that enough!

I’m grateful for the teaching staff and coordinator of my Master’s programme, my Master’s thesis supervisors, doctoral programme personnel, Ph.D. supervisors, colleagues, and friends. Those are the ones who fuel my enthusiasm and energy in scientific research every day. If I were to share one tip with the prospective students, it would be this: surround yourselves with the right people. That is very important.”

How does a typical day of a doctoral candidate look like?

“For me, a typical day as a doctoral candidate would have around 8 working hours and a “to-do” list which includes office and lab works. Some days are longer and busier, other few days are less busy.

Life as a doctoral candidate is very challenging but very rewarding, on both professional and personal levels. I always like to think I made the right decision starting my Ph.D. studies. Not just because of the Ph.D. degree, but also because of the impact that it has on me as a person. Don’t get me wrong though, Ph.D. is not an easy ride, at times it’s exhausting and there are days where I feel demotivated, tired, and even impostured, and that’s when surrounding yourself with the right people helps a lot!”

It is very important to surround yourself with the right people.

What difficulties do you expect to encounter during your Ph.D. studies here in Turku?

“Based on my experience, I think prospective students should realise that there are two different starting points for any doctoral degree studies, which steer the path thereafter differently. Each path has its pros and cons. A Ph.D. project which starts from the pilot would be different compared to a Ph.D. project that continues one’s Master thesis or another graduate student’s work. That being said, difficulties are alike and I want to mention the difficulties I struggle with the most: balancing the visible and invisible work; efficient time spending; not losing interest in training activities, and transferable skills due to lab work overload.”

What do you expect from being a doctoral candidate at UTU?

“The education system in Finland is praised globally for various attributes all the time. I experience a high-quality doctoral training and research project. There is a great deal of expertise in the university on teaching and research levels; the laboratories are equipped well with cutting-edge equipment; funding opportunities are feasible. All in all, I expect getting my Ph.D. from the University of Turku would open new venues for me in academic institutions and relevant industries.

I would like to continue my research career. I see scientific research as the border between what we know and what we don’t know. I’m a curious person and to me, that’s the perfect fit.”

Can you imagine your future after graduation here in Finland?

“Yes, indeed! The research activity, infrastructure, and output are expanding and developing all the time here in Finland. From here on, that can only improve the quality and create more opportunities for Ph.D. graduates.”

The University of Turku Graduate School (UTUGS) consists of doctoral programmes that cover all disciplines and the approximately 2,000 doctoral candidates of the University. More information about pursuing a doctoral degree at UTU can be found at https://www.utu.fi/en/research/utugs.

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