Name: Sahana Nazeer

College: Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM)

Major: Medical student

Hometown: Franklin, Massachusetts

Plans after graduation on May 6: Psychiatry residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital followed by fellowship in child psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital

Why you chose VTCSOM: “Funny story is that I didn’t plan to come to VTCSOM, but after I visited for a day of interviews where people like (the late) Dr. (Richard) Vari spoke with such passion about the school and its students, I left feeling like I absolutely had to go there!”

Psychiatry was always something that Sahana gravitated toward in her younger years, but she was not intentional about pursuing it until she entered medical school. She had two formative experiences related to mental health with her father – who unexpectedly passed away – and friend who was diagnosed with an eating disorder in her second year at Brown University. Sahana was keenly involved in her friend’s care and was able to see her friend recover and thrive. “Both of these experiences gave me insight and exposure to psychiatry,” Sahana shared. “Being able to witness my friend’s journey along with her family and her healthcare support system was an incredible privilege.”

Sahana’s third-year rotation in psychiatry solidified her desire to pursue the specialty. “Psychiatry is interesting because of how much biological and psychosocial influences can affect your patient’s care and treatment,” she said. “There’s no clear-cut algorithm that works for every patient. I also feel challenged by the interpersonal dynamics that naturally come with psychiatric care.”

Pushing a sense of belonging

The VTCSOM Class of 2023 will be remembered for its collective commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) - both within the school and the local community and beyond. Members of the class first showed their passion for inclusivity when three students made a shared statement about areas for DEIB improvement at the school during a virtual town hall with Dean Lee Learman in spring 2020. Their eloquent tenacity helped prompt the formation of the school’s InclusiveVTCSOM task force, which eventually put forth substantive recommendations. “I’m honored to be surrounded by classmates who have driven so many individual and system-based initiatives and changes,” Sahana said.

Just a few examples include five members of the class who advocated for a common laboratory test to measure kidney function to be updated to remove race from the screening questions, participation inn the formation of the Council for Diversity and Inclusion, and partnership with faculty to further integrate LGBTQIA+ healthcare into clinical sciences. Despite their busy schedules as medical students, members of the class have been active in the Roanoke Immigrant Medical Association, Bradley Free Clinic, and other groups that serve the disenfranchised. As class president, Sahana proudly applauds her classmates. “They are an incredible group of individuals,” she said. “It would be hard for me to find someone in my class who is not passionate about serving or advocating for others, especially those who have been historically underrepresented or underserved.”

Quantifying trust

For her research project, Sahana studied the level of trust between people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and their loved ones, specifically their mothers, to determine if the involvement of their loved one in their care would be helpful or a hindrance. “Interpersonal conflict is one of the leading risk factors for suicide in a person diagnosed with BPD,” Sahana said.

She selected surveys and used an online computer game for the participants to play with one another. “Basically, I’m trying to quantify trust,” she said. As Sahana continues to work on reaching her quota for participants, she was contacted by someone in Oregon who had read about her study and reached out to share her story of losing her daughter with BPD to suicide, noting an estranged relationship before she died. “That unexpected phone call brought me back to why I was interested in this particular research question and how this study could contribute to helping patients and their loved ones.”

Never steered me wrong

Sahana named two faculty members whom she said were the biggest influences on her during medical school. The first was her research mentor Anita Kablinger, professor of psychiatry and behavioral health, who helped her from the inception of her research idea throughout the design of her methodology and recruitment of participants. “Dr. Kablinger is warm, friendly, and encouraging,” Sahana said. “She’s been an incredible support system, and she’s inspired me to continue research efforts throughout my career.”

The second person was Aubrey Knight, senior dean for student affairs at the school. “There have been many times I’ve asked Dr. Knight for feedback and advice,” she said. “And he has never steered me wrong. When you go to Dr. Knight with a problem, you know that he’s also as concerned about it as you are. When looking at medical schools, I believe I was looking for a place that would support my ideas – especially for research - and also to support me as a person the way Dr. Kablinger and Dr. Knight have.”

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