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Naseem AlKhoury (back row, far left) helped deliver lessons in basic health to primary school children, as part of the RED Blood Cells Project in Syria © Naseem AlKhoury

Oxford Population Health hosts an international community of researchers and students. Here, Dr Naseem AlKhoury, currently studying an MSc in Global Health Science and Epidemiology, describes his journey from Tartus in Syria and how his experiences treating patients inspired him to study health at the population level.

Why did you want to study medicine?

Both my parents were a strong influence during my childhood, and exposed me to science from an early age. My father is an engineer, and my mother worked as a laboratory technician diagnosing diseases such as malaria and leishmaniosis from samples. I loved learning about all kinds of things, but was drawn to medicine because I was fascinated by people, and realised that a medical career offered opportunities to see the difference you have made to people’s lives.

Did you enjoy your experience as a medical student?

I completed my medical degree at Tishreen University on the on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. Initially, I was interested in molecular biology and genetics, but moved to internal medicine because it treats the body as a whole rather than focusing on a specific area. In my final year, I specialised in respiratory diseases because this offered a holistic career, where I could both prescribe medicines for patients and carry out procedures.

But I thought it was important to understand the wider social impacts of public health, so while studying for my degree I volunteered for the Red Blood Cells project, a non-governmental organisation. In Syria, many children might not learn about basic hygiene so the Red Blood Cells project empowers young people to give lessons in schools on health topics. As part of a team, I helped organise a hygiene raising-awareness campaign for primary school children, which covered concepts such as tooth decay, infectious diseases, and hand-washing. Together, our team of 30 reached around 10,000 children. It felt transformative to give back to the community and gave me much in return: I  developed skills in team work and interacting with children, and gained a public health perspective beyond what I learnt at medical school.

How did you find working as a qualified doctor?

On graduating in 2020, I worked as a Research Fellow at Tishreen University’s Cancer Research Centre, then as a resident doctor in Respiratory Medicine for six months at Tishreen University Hospital. Here I witnessed the impacts of COVID-19, particularly for patients who developed severe lung complications such as pulmonary fibrosis, where the lung tissue necessary for gas exchange becomes irreversibly scarred. In most cases, these were unvaccinated adults in their 50s.

Vaccine hesitancy in Syria was fuelled by false information, which spread easily because COVID-19 was a new disease with very little known about it. So I became involved with ‘Stop the Spread’: an online campaign run by Ideas Beyond Borders to provide reliable medical evidence via Wikipedia, a very widely-used information source in Arabic communities.

Why did you decide to study population health?

Naseem AlKhouryI enjoyed working as a clinical doctor, but I could only treat patients on an individual level, after they had developed a disease. My voluntary work with communities had helped me realise that to have a larger impact and help prevent illness in the first place, I had to look at the population level to work out how trends are shifting and the risk factors that are responsible. For instance, ischemic heart diseases and cancers are becoming more prevalent in Syria, but it is not known why; for instance, is it due to more salt or fat in people’s diets, increased inactivity, or more stress in everyday life? Working in population health allows one to build a holistic picture that can help more people, both in the short- and long-term.

Why did you choose to study at Oxford Population Health?

I was aware that Oxford Population Health is one of the leading institutions worldwide for population epidemiology, but the deciding factor was being selected by the University of Oxford to be a Rhodes Scholar. This prestigious international scholarship provides a life-changing opportunity for young people from around the world to study at the University of Oxford. I am really honoured to be a recipient, since the committee chooses people who it believes have ‘the potential to make a difference for good in the world.’ It has been truly transformative for me, as it means I don’t need to worry about funding my studies and can concentrate on the work itself.

How are you finding the course?

I am loving it so far! I particularly like the fact that in the second term we can select four of eight modules – for me, these are Health Economics; Genetic Epidemiology; Communicable Diseases Epidemiology; and Clinical Trials and Meta Analysis. My fellow students are really diverse, and include people from Africa, Europe, the USA, the Middle East and Asia. It really illustrates what global health is all about.

I really like being part of the college system, because each individual college feels likes a whole community, with a unique history. I have already joined the community choir at University College. It is beautiful to engage with such a diverse and vibrant community, surrounded by incredible heritage.

What are your hopes for the future?

I intend to stay on at Oxford Population Health after my MSc, and have applied to study a DPhil in Population Health. I intend to investigate the association between body fat and chronic conditions, particularly for respiratory illnesses, using data from the UK Biobank Study. I hope I will be able to explore more of the UK and I am especially keen to visit Edinburgh and the Scottish coast.

After that, I will go wherever is most suitable to pursue my goals and aspirations, whether that is Syria, the UK, or elsewhere. Always, I will be looking to have an impact on people’s lives. After all, to me science is nothing unless it is translated into real-world interventions that benefit as many people as possible.

Learn more about the postgraduate courses Oxford Population Health offers.