I was born/grew up in: I was born in Faisalabad, Pakistan, a city known for its agriculture and textile industries. My parents moved often when I was young, so I spent parts of my childhood in Pakistan as well as Mississauga, ON
I now live in: I now live in Ottawa, ON
I completed my training/education at: I completed my primary school in Mississauga, but I did my high school and undergraduate studies in Lahore, Pakistan.
What I do at work
I work at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. I study wheat and its wild relatives by using a series of bioinformatics tools. Bioinformatics uses computer programs and mathematical models to solve complex biological problems. I work with scientists across Canada. We are trying to identify new genes for important traits, such as disease resistance, in wheat. We believe that the wild relatives of wheat have useful traits that are not present in the wheat we grow for food. Identifying the genes responsible for these traits will allow us to transfer them to modern wheat. This will create resilient, high-yielding varieties that can help feed the rising population of the world.
The majority of my work involves data analysis. I use different software and mathematical models to study the gene sequence of the different varieties of wheat. I use genetic data to study the relationship between different species of wheat and its relatives. I combine the genetic data with different traits, such as leaf rust resistance, to find news genes that may be responsible for this resistance. The work I do is all STEM-based. I combine biology with engineering and mathematics to decode important information about the wheat we eat and all its relatives.
My career path is
Since high school, I was drawn to biology. I wanted to learn more so decided to study at university. During my undergraduate program, I was introduced to the field of bioinformatics. This opened a new area of interest. So, I enrolled in extra computational biology courses to learn skills. I also joined a research lab to practice these skills. I did a summer internship in a research lab at my university. For my undergraduate research, I worked on the gene-regulatory network of pancreatic cancer to understand cancer progression and treatment. Over the years, my work has taught me many transferable bioinformatics skills. These skills apply to fields from agriculture to medicine.
I am motivated by
What attracted me to research is its unpredictable nature. The small day-to-day challenges build up your endurance and problem-solving skills - there is always something new to learn. During my undergrad, going to the hospital and discussing patient-specific drug treatment protocols with doctors made me realize the importance of my work. Similarly, for agriculture, meeting wheat breeders and local farmers at international conferences helped me understand the gap between researchers, producers and consumers.
One of my favourite things is to make my data understandable to others. I enjoy spending my time making fancy colourful graphs and figures to present my results. A single graphic has the power to summarize months of research. I take pleasure in detailing and perfecting them. Besides, the mere fact that I am studying something that is used to make cakes, cookies, and of course, pizza makes me feel excited (and hungry).
How I affect peoples’ lives
The work we do in my research group may help to improve the wheat we grow for food. Up to now, I have used genetics to show the relationship between 26 different species of wheat. I have also identified over 30 genes that may contribute to leaf rust resistance. The goal is to provide insights to farmers and breeders to help guide the production of locally adapted superior wheat. I am very hopeful about the outcomes of the research. My life motto has now become “Wheat-Can-Do-It”.
Outside of work I
Outside of work, I like to do different activities with my family and friends. I really enjoy kayaking and hiking. I am a big foodie, so I’m always finding new places to try. Sometimes I also like to play video games - Pokémon is my favourite.
My advice to others
Don’t give up. I am a big believer in George Moore’s words: “a winner is just a loser who tried one more time”. Research can be challenging and it may feel like what you are doing is only important to you. But, you have to remember that there is a bigger picture and what you do can really make a worldly impact.
- Organized activities for my friends
- Wanted to be in charge
- Engaged in volunteer activities
- Was really creative
- Always threw the best parties
- Wasn't sure what I wanted to do
- Learned best “by doing”