Aasma Shaukat: Cancer Researcher

I was born in Gujranwala, a small city near Lahore in Punjab, Pakistan, which is in the middle of the country. I grew up mostly in Lahore, the cultural heartland of Pakistan. My childhood was very happy, surrounded by family: a lot of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. It was wonderful to grow up in that environment. 

I was inspired to go into medicine by my grandfather, who was a physician. I heard all these wonderful stories about him, which may not have been true, but were inspiring nonetheless. The stories were that he was the only doctor in the village and that he could fix everything from severed heads to people with nerve disease. 

Looking back, I see there is a lot that I left behind [when I came to the U.S. for education and work], but I did not realize it at the time. I was in my 20s, full of energy and excitement, and I felt like I could conquer the world. I took lots of exams to get into top-notch schools. I thought that after I did my education, the purpose was to come back to Pakistan and serve the people, but things changed. 

I literally came to the U.S. with a suitcase and a few photographs of things I wanted to keep close. I remember saying goodbye to my family, and said, “I’ll be back very shortly.” I missed out on the childhood of my younger brother, who was eight years old at that time. Both grandmothers, who I was very attached to, passed. I never got to say goodbye. 

I left behind a culture, and an identity. I knew where to go and who my friends were. I was very comfortable in that life, and I left all that to pursue a master’s degree in the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. 

My passion for math and science inspired me. I thought I would integrate being a researcher into my work and take on all of Pakistan’s medical problems at a public health level. I came to Minnesota for research opportunities in the field of colon cancer. I stayed due to lack of opportunities for women in research and in gastroenterology in Pakistan. 

I didn’t know the word grit when I first started but now I completely understand what it means. It is perseverance in the face of failure or rejection, and when one door closes you have to keep knocking until more doors open. 

I have found Minnesota to be very responsive and open to immigrants and new ideas. This was the only place where people would ask me, “Where are you from?” I would say, “Pakistan,” and they would say, “What city in Pakistan?” People here pride themselves on being very educated. Assimilating was not difficult. 

Initially I was held back by my own fears and insecurities. There is a lesson in this. I have found that if you reach out, most of the time you get the answers you are seeking. There is a lot of help available, but you have to ask. 

My work is divided into three parts: as a clinician, a researcher, and an educator in medical school. I am trying to understand how we can prevent colon cancer through diet and lifestyle, as well as what predisposes people to cancer. I also am studying the role of stool transplant in curing diseases. 

Colon cancer is the third-most common cancer in both men and women, and the source of a large number of premature deaths. Improving screening is where my research is focused. I speak at national and international meetings in order to move this field of research forward with others. 

I enjoy being a role model for young women in STEM, by encouraging them to follow their passions and not to be discouraged by rejections. 

Aasma Shaukat is a colon cancer researcher.

For more about the Green Card Voices STEM stories, see: greencardvoices.com/stem-mn

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