For PhD student Mohamed Nur Abdallah is all about good time management

February 2015

_MG_8426Edited Currently a 3rd year PhD student, Mohamed juggles his time between his research, his TA responsibilities, chairing the annual Dentistry Research Day and being the Student Representative of the Network for Canadian Oral Health Research (NCOHR). Half Jordanian, half Greek-Cypriot, Mohamed has mastered not only three languages but three different alphabets! A soon-to-be first time dad, he sat down with me to talk about how he manages all of his responsibilities.

Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Cyprus but spent most of life in Jordan where I studied to become a dentist. I received my dental degree from the University of Jordan in 2008 and completed my internship at Jordan University Hospital. Prior to coming to McGill in 2011, I worked as a General Dentist in the Cypriot Army, the Ministry of Health in Jordan, and private dental centres in Jordan.

Dr. Tamimi is my supervisor and I work on characterizing the surfaces of implants and mineralized tissues, modifying implant surfaces and evaluating their integration with the surrounding tissues. In my spare time, which I do not really have since starting my post-graduate studies; I enjoy playing or watching basketball, swimming and beating my friends at video games.

Why did you choose to do post-graduate studies? Why McGill? Why Dr. Tamimi as you supervisor?
I was in the process of applying for post-graduate programs when I met Dr. Tamimi at a presentation he was giving in Jordan. He explained the importance of being a clinician-scientist and spoke of the opportunities available in Canada. After our meeting, I started looking into the available post-graduate programs at McGill University. I was fascinated by the excellence of dental research at McGill and the fact that it was ranked amongst the top universities in dental research, so I decided to apply. It also helped me a lot that my fellow class mate and friend, Hazem Eimar, was already a PhD student under the supervision of Dr. Tamimi.

What is the hardest part of being a PhD student?
As an undergraduate student, it’s simple; you have certain material to study and specific clinical requirement to complete within a definite time frame.
As a Master’s student you start learning about the basics of conducting research and academic writing.
But being a PhD student is a totally different story. You have to become an independent researcher, and besides conducting your own research, you have to learn how to apply for grants and scholarship, plan projects, and supervise other students in order to prepare yourself for a career in academia or industry. So, I find the hardest part is time management.

As a part-time Teaching Assistant in the Faculty of Dentistry, what are the biggest differences between the teaching system where you completed you studies in Jordan and here at McGill?
The dental knowledge is almost the same everywhere. I studied from similar textbooks, with some slight differences in the clinical methods. However, these things also vary between dental schools in North America.

One of the major differences is the small instructor/student ratio, giving instructors the chance to pay more attention to the strengths and weaknesses of students, as well as spend more time with the students on treatment planning and discussing the cases. In Jordan, there were 100-120 students per year compared to 35 to 40 at McGill. In Jordan, the patient flow was also higher, exposing us to a broader spectrum of clinical cases. In addition, the dental specialists had their own clinics once or twice a week on the same floor, so the students had the chance to shadow in one of these clinics during their undergrad studies.

Research wise, the undergraduate students here at McGill have more chances to explore the basics of research through research courses, summer research programs and participating in the research day. Also, evidence-based dentistry is more integrated into the teaching curriculum.

This year you are the Chair of the Dentistry Research Day. Why is this day so important for you?
This is a day where all graduate students can present their work that resulted from long experiments, data collecting, reading tons of articles and what seems to be endless meetings with supervisors and advisory committees. Even though I have only been in research for 3.5 years, I can definitely say that the work presented in our research day is of high standard and McGill students always standout in national and international conferences.

The idea of having the research day run by students was initiated by Dr. Kaartinen in 2012, in order to give interested students the chance to improve their leadership and organizational skills. I was happy to take on the role of Chair this year.

You are also the student representative for the NCOHR. How did you get chosen from all Canadian Dental Schools?
It all started when my supervisor encouraged me to get involved in extracurricular activities to help me improve my networking and time management skills. I became an active member in the MDGSS for two years, which our graduate student Betty Hoac had a big role in initiating, and which is still highly supported by Dr. Tran and Dr. McKee. During one of our activities, the MDGSS hosted Dr. Walter Siqueira from Western University to give a presentation. He was fascinated by the high level of student organization and as a member of the NCOHR Steering Committee decided that he wanted a student representative from McGill to be part of the NCOHR. Zeeshan Sheikh, who was President of the MDGSS at the time, recommended me and my nomination was endorsed by the Dean (who is a strong supporter of extracurricular activities and always makes a point to stop by the MDGSS events). I am mentioning all these names because it really was a team effort. I feel fortunate to have the guidance, encouragement and support from so many faculty members, and fellow students. It also demonstrates the importance of networking and building relations in your field outside of your lab and even outside of your school, which in essence, is the goal of NCOHR.

With all of this on your plate, how do you manage your time between school requirements and extracurricular activities?
Time management is an incredibly important skill to have and I am still learning how to master it. With all the technology around us, we are always connected to the internet and it is very easy to get distracted. You start reading one article, then suddenly you have another 3-4 articles open at the same time, and start getting confused with the results from each study. Or, you start watching how to work on a certain machine to run your experiments on YouTube, and end up having many tabs opened, including your emails or the highlights of yesterday’s NBA match…

I believe that single tasking is the new multitasking! I try to focus on finishing one task at a time, and try to disconnect from the internet and put my cell phone on mute while am doing that particular task. I try to always have a to-do list and prioritize the important tasks. However, this is much easier said than done. There always seems to be a sudden side project that pops up, or an important scholarship or abstract submission deadline, or corrections from a previously submitted work. So, you have to be very flexible with your to-do list and prioritize things, otherwise you will get frustrated, stressed and end up losing focus and not accomplishing anything.

As an international student, what helped you settle into this new environment and new system?
The friendly, helpful staff that are working behind the scenes and always willing to put an extra effort to help you with whatever you need, from filling in forms, to solving any problem you might encounter really helped me adapt. Also, the easily approachable faculty members that always have their door open for listening to your ideas, or offering career advice, or any help you might need.

My supervisor, who is my mentor and like a big-brother to me, my supportive friends and lab members who are always willing to help me and working in healthy, friendly atmosphere has also made the change easier.

Also, I would like to thank Maria Palumbo (the second mother of graduate students) and Linda Harrison (the second mother of undergraduate students) for helping me in many ways. The biggest thank you goes to my family and my wife for their endless support, love and never ending compromises to help me pursue my career.

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