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Student Profile: Arman Athwal

Biomedical Engineering Master's student in the Faculty of Applied Science

December 22, 2020
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I think I could be best described as one of the majority of humans who particularly dislikes the "tell us a little about yourself" question. Where does one even begin to answer that?

Well, here's my best shot: I am a person who loves to learn (especially learning how to learn better!). It's a bit of a groaner, but I genuinely think anyone can learn just about anything if they *believe* they can do so. I've only really internalized this idea during my mid 20s, but it has been the driving force behind my life recently. As a junior undergrad, I didn't think very highly of my career prospects. More recently, though, I feel like my self-imposed skill cap has evaporated, and a sea of exciting opportunities floats in front of me.

At present, I am roughly halfway through my master's degree in Biomedical Engineering at SFU. Next month, I am beginning my Private Pilot License so I can finally follow one of my dreams of flying an aircraft by myself. In a couple years, I hope to start medical school in Canada, beginning a long road towards becoming a physician. Eventually, I would like my multi-disciplinary career to take me to space (literally), hopefully as an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency. One can dream, right?

Career aside though, I am grounded by my interests and hobbies. I love playing piano, writing fiction, astrophotography, and, more recently, challenging outdoor adventures. I am obsessed with pushing past my comfort zone and am consistently amazed by how doing so in your personal life can do wonders for your professional life as well.

Above all, I'm just a person who's ready and excited for the next challenge.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO COME TO SFU?

Full disclosure: I almost didn't come to SFU, and I don't have a romantic story of how the university appealed to me. Attending SFU for me was more of a matter of chance than anything else.

What I can speak to, though, is what kept me here. I've been a student at SFU for over 7 years, through my undergrad and now my master's. Objectively, that is a really long time to stick around anywhere, and there are good reasons for it.

For me, it's the people that pulled me in. I'm limited by my experience in my own faculty, but I can unabashedly say that the professors, supervisors, and peers I've worked with are some of the best people I've ever known. There's something about the community here that has a 'home' feeling to it. Truthfully, I didn't feel that way for the first few years, but it's something I came to realize as I learned to become more open-minded. I made great friends with people I initially never saw myself fitting in with, including my academic superiors. While I love new beginnings, the idea of eventually leaving SFU sends a strange pain through my chest that I'm not sure how to deal with yet.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH AND/OR PROGRAM.

My research career began 3.5 years ago when I half-heartedly applied for a mandatory co-op position at 11:58pm on a Sunday night, two minutes before the application closed. Little did I know that this application would change my life and divert my career trajectory 90 degrees.

Since then, my research has focused on investigating human blindness through a technology called Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). Basically, it is a neat imaging technology that uses light to acquire amazingly-detailed 3D images of a person's eye, in just a few seconds and perfectly safely. I have been using OCT to investigate how different blindness-causing diseases affect the eye, and how we can detect these diseases earlier to prevent people from losing their vision. I have been lucky enough to be one of a few student-researchers stationed at Vancouver's Eye Care Centre at Vancouver General Hospital, acquiring OCT data from real patients suffering with vision loss. I also recently worked at the Lions Eye Institute in Perth, Australia, doing similar work at a hospital there as part of a research exchange. These unique roles working inside care-giving environments are what motivated me to want to eventually pursue medicine as a career.

WHAT ARE YOU PARTICULARLY ENJOYING ABOUT YOUR STUDIES/RESEARCH AT SFU?

I think my favourite part of my studies and research at SFU is that it is so flexible. I get to do work that I enjoy, on my own hours, and it feels like meaningful work.

The other huge factor is that the faculty and peers with whom I work are really dynamic people, and that has given me a lot of room to expand my skills. It feels like an environment where ideas flow more freely between people, and opportunities are readily yours as long as you show the interest and the drive.

HAVE YOU BEEN THE RECIPIENT OF ANY MAJOR OR DONOR FUNDED AWARDS?

I have been fortunate enough to receive the Mitacs Accelerate International award since 2019, which is an international research travel award that allowed me to live in Perth, Western Australia for four months, translating what I'd learned in the last 2 years to a new research lab in a new city. I received this award again for the Spring 2021 semester, which will allow me to work with the same Australian lab virtually in the new year (the COVID-19 pandemic cut my research trip short by 6 months). In 2020, I also received the NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarships – Master’s scholarship (CGS-M).

It’s hard to overstate how impactful these awards have been to my life. The Mitacs award is what allowed me to live on the other side of the world for a few months; which is something I never imagined doing, but in hindsight is something I cannot imagine having never done. Meanwhile, I received the CGS-M award right as Canadian lockdowns were beginning, and it has been a major source of monetary stability during these strange and difficult times.

DESCRIBE YOUR PROGRAM TO THOSE WHO ARE SEARCHING.

I would describe my master’s program as a terribly-well-balanced position, in which I can learn whatever it is that interests me. Seriously – there are more opportunities than I can shake a stick at. It’s a supportive environment where people can very freely engage with other teams, learn about random things they’re passionate about, and improve their skill portfolio. The hours are flexible, the people are friendly and unique, and the work is stimulating (most of the time). I think I’ve been extremely lucky to find myself in the position I’ve wound up in, and I hope my honest description of it will motivate more people to pursue research; especially those people who never imagined themselves becoming researchers – like yours truly!

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE?

Shout-out to my friends and colleagues at the Biomedical Optics Research Group (BORG; http://borg.ensc.sfu.ca/). Y’all are the best in the game.

Contact Arman: aathwal@sfu.ca