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Within a year of starting a doctorate at Oxford Population Health, Canadian student Danial Qureshi has received a Doctoral Research Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). This is one of the most prestigious scholarships available for Canadian doctoral students conducting research abroad, awarded to candidates judged to have an exceptionally high potential for a future research career.

Danial joined Oxford Population Health as a DPhil student in October 2021. His research focuses on improving our understanding of how cardiometabolic and vascular risk factors for dementia interact, as he explained: ‘We know that many commonly-occurring conditions such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are risk factors for dementia. These conditions often co-occur in individuals rather than in isolation, yet there is currently very little evidence about how these different conditions interact within individuals to influence their risk of developing dementia. My aim is to use the amazing data resource within the UK Biobank to investigate the impact of co-occurring cardiometabolic and vascular conditions on the risk of dementia.’

Danial’s interest in dementia was first sparked during his teenage years, when he volunteered in a nursing home. ‘Many of the residents had dementia, so during this time I developed a first-hand understanding of what it is like to live with the disease, and the impacts on family members and caregivers. It made me more curious about the study of geriatrics and gerontology, and the process of ageing’ he said.

After completing a degree in Life Sciences at McMaster University, Canada, Danial applied to study an MSc in Health Research Methodology at the same institute. His MSc dissertation project, supervised by Dr Hsien Seow, explored how end-of-life healthcare use differs by palliative care timing and chronic disease in a cohort study of Ontario residents. ‘This was when I fell in love with using big data approaches. In particular, I was amazed at how routinely-collected health administrative data could be used for research purposes to answer some of the most challenging healthcare issues we currently face’ he said.

Following his graduation, Danial worked with Dr Peter Tanuseputro and Dr Amy Hsu for three years as a Clinical Research Coordinator at the Bruyère Research Institute in Ottawa, Canada. Here he was responsible for leading the design and conduct of several large-scale population-based studies using health administrative data, focusing on palliative and end-of-life care, chronic disease, and health services research.

Despite enjoying his work and publishing several papers, Danial returned to his studies, as he explained: ‘Leading various health research studies helped me enhance my technical and communication skills, but I realised that if I wanted to establish my own research programme in ageing one day, I would need a really thorough grounding in advanced methods for analysing large scale population-level data.’

Despite receiving several fully-funded PhD offers in Canada, Danial chose to study at Oxford Population Health. Explaining his decision, he said: ‘I wanted to go outside my comfort zone and experience a new environment with a different healthcare system. Also, when choosing a doctorate programme, one of the most important deciding factors for me was how well I connected with the proposed supervisors. When I expressed interest in a project advertised on the department’s website, I was amazed at how responsive and enthusiastic the supervisors were (Dr Thomas Littlejohns, Professor Naomi Allen, and Dr Elżbieta Kuźma). Even though I was only a prospective student, they gave up so much of their time to have meetings with me, discuss my draft research proposal, and provide useful feedback. I really appreciated that, and could see that I would enjoy working under their guidance and supervision.’

As a recipient of the award, Danial will receive $105,000 over three years to support his research activities. ‘Besides providing financial security so that I can focus on my studies, this award will also allow me to take up additional development opportunities, such as attending dementia-related conferences, and undertaking training courses to enhance my technical skills. I feel incredibly grateful to receive this prestigious award. I am currently in the early stages of my career in health research and academia, and I still have so much to learn. This award will help support my continued learning and research at a world-renowned institution as I examine ways to prevent dementia, one of the most complex diseases of our times.’

Dr Thomas Littlejohns, Danial’s principal supervisor, said: ‘Receiving this generous award from CIHR is a fantastic achievement by Danial and reflects the high quality of research proposal he has developed. Danial has played a leading role in developing the project and has identified a novel set of questions that will contribute to our understanding of the factors potentially involved in dementia risk.’