Article by Elizabeth Karvasarski
Graphic design by Stephen Nachtsheim
Maternal mortality can be defined as a death of a woman during pregnancy, delivery, or after pregnancy. Although Canada is far from being a dangerous place to give birth, there are still mothers who unfortunately pass away before, during, and after childbirth. It is important to understand the reason as to why these deaths occur. Kayvan Aflaki, a second-year MSc student from the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) program, focuses on studying this population under the supervision of Dr. Joel Ray to identify and determine why women in Canada die during, shortly after, or a year after pregnancy. With the opportunity to partner with the Ontario Coroner, who is responsible for death investigations, Kayvan is able to conduct one of the largest studies done in Canada on this typically understudied population. Furthermore, as a new uncle, Kayvan hopes his research can help prevent these deaths from arising in the future as he believes, “giving birth to life should never have to come at the expense of losing your own life.”
Kayvan’s research journey began during his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. He had the opportunity to study Chagas disease, a tropical disease transmitted by insect vectors predominantly in South America. This lab experience allowed Kayvan to develop skills to perform different techniques such as polymerase chain reaction. However, Kayvan found that conducting basic science research was not the best fit. Always having a strong interest in the healthcare sphere, he decided to continue his research journey, but adjust the approach of his research and perhaps have an opportunity to work more directly with patients. After spending time investigating potential research interests, Kayvan landed a spot working with Dr. Ray.
With over 600 faculty members at the IMS, there are many potential supervisors with countless publications, prestigious awards, and great laboratories. However, when it comes to the supervisor-student relationship, Kayvan emphasizes that it is important to seek out a supervisor, “who can double as a mentor in more ways than just your research.” Kayvan describes that in a lot of ways his supervisor has been a fantastic mentor and support system. Not only does Dr. Ray provide honest feedback and asks thoughtful questions to help Kayvan understand his research, but Dr. Ray also helps guide Kayvan through important decisions regarding his ultimate career path and life goals. Furthermore, Kayvan’s experience with his research has taught him important professional skills such as independent thinking. As well, in our graduate experience it is very common to be met with hurdles, thus being able to digest and interpret constructive criticism in a positive and helpful manner allows one to realize the potential gaps in our work. Learning how to process the criticism was an important skill Kayvan developed in order to push his research forward and make it stronger.
From being one half of the IMS Student Association presidency, to being a show host on the Raw Talk Podcast, Kayvan is quite active in the IMS community. Kayvan’s goal with his involvement is to help bring students together to build connections and a community and also to make people’s lives more engaging and stimulating, especially after two years of the pandemic. He has also achieved this through his collaborative efforts with his peer Serena Peck in the creation of the Health Care Innovation Challenge. Their idea was awarded the Jay Keystone Memorial Award. The challenge took place for the first time this summer and involved the opportunity for students to work together to solve real world healthcare issues and pitch their idea in written form or verbally to potential investors and clinicians. Through this experience, students had the chance to network professionally with one another and be creatively stimulated.
Imagine having the opportunity to travel back in time and meet yourself right before you began your graduate studies. What would you say to your younger self? Kayvan mentioned that the years go by much faster than one realizes, “so it helps to stop and smell the roses.” As deadlines for grants and abstracts pass by and PAC meetings and conferences quickly approach, you may get caught up in just preparing and anxiously awaiting the next event. This may cause one to miss out on the opportunity to be present and appreciate where you are in life. “I would tell myself to be more present in the day, exercise gratefulness and mindfulness,” Kayvan adds. Kayvan also mentions to, “appreciate your accomplishments.” He discusses that when publishing a manuscript or completing a PAC meeting, one should take a minute to celebrate as these are major milestones in graduate school. He adds, “do not let the idea of doing things for a CV or an application cloud that appreciation.” It is important to ground yourself in things that make you happy so you can appreciate your accomplishments and life itself.
Being passionate about the healthcare world has resulted in Kayvan joining the IMS program. His academic and research experiences continue to fuel that passion and therefore he hopes to continue working in healthcare. However, how that will manifest itself, Kayvan is still unsure. Kayvan believes in serving people and serving those who are in times of need. Therefore, he is interested in pursuing medicine. As well, he is interested in continuing his research journey by pursuing a PhD. Furthermore, Kayvan is continuously looking for opportunities for soul searching. For example, he went to pilot school to learn how to fly a plane! He is enthusiastic about taking up experiences that really push his boundaries to help him grow as a person. Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea how far you can fly!