May 21, 2019
As a young girl, Maliha Zahid knew what she wanted to do – become a doctor. Yet, after becoming a doctor Maliha decided she also wanted to become a scientist and began translating discoveries from the lab to the clinic. And between conducting research and practicing medicine, Maliha finds time for another talent… dancing.
Maliha Zahid, MD, PhD Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Developmental Biology at the University of Pittsburgh. Maliha received her Ph.D. in Microbiology & Molecular Genetics from the University of Pittsburgh. She is also a Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) 2016 and 2018 awardee
Maliha: Well, I’ll go to medicine if I can. If I don't make it to med school, I'm going to go to science school and be a scientist. And if I can’t make it in science, I can’t make it to science school either, then I'm going to be a classical Indian dancer.
Mike: I didn’t expect that answer.
Maliha. I had a plan, and a backup plan, and backup plan for the backup plan.
Mike: It sounds like two of those true, what about the third?
Maliha: Actually, all three came true.
Mike: From CTSI, this is the Products of Pittsburgh, a show about the people in Pittsburgh innovators, scientists, community leaders, and the remarkable stories behind how they came to be and work they’ve produced. I'm Mike Flock, on the show today we catch up with Dr. Maliha Zahid a physician-scientist an innovator at the University of Pittsburgh.
Maliha isn’t your typical doctor. She’s not your typical scientist either. As a two time Pitt Innovation Challenge awardee and recipient of the University of Pittsburgh’s Emerging Innovator award, she’s certainly making a name for herself. Her path to Pittsburgh though began in a faraway continent. Maliha grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, the second biggest city in Pakistan located near the border of India. As a young girl, Maliha knew what she wanted to do – become a doctor. At age 16, Maliha experienced her first time away from home and attended Lester B Person College, a two year international baccalaureate program, located in Victoria, Canada. It was a bit of culture shock at first, but it became a springboard for the rest of her career.
Maliha: The adjustment was really tough, but in one way it was very easy because everybody, unless you were Canadian, everybody was in the same boat. I was really homesick, I miss the foods, I wasn't fluent in English then. I had to think what I wanted to say in my native tongue Urdo and then kind of translate it in my head before I actually said it. But then that was a minor thing. English you know everybody's always speaking English. I think it was harder for some other folks for whom English was more of a second language than it was for me because in Pakistan you get taught both languages at the same time from school, you just never speak it. It’s just another subject. But I got my you know fluency in those two years. I was home sick but so was everybody else. You made friends quicker. There wasn't the internet, Snapchat, Facebook. So you couldn't really get away from each other either and it was tough to do you know stay in touch with family with just snail mail and extremely expensive phone calls. I still remember having to pay in quarters for a 3-minute call to my mother it cost $12.85. I had like a whole roll of quarters lined out in my hand that I would put four at a time to get 3 minutes and imagine calling home and finding out she's not home. Because you can’t text and tell somebody I'm going to call, be there. There was no texting. There was no cell phones. We’re talking 1986.
Mike: When you moved to Canada at age 16, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do as a career?
Maliha: Yes. I was one of those precious kids who knew what they wanted since I think I was 6 years old. I knew I wanted to be a doctor and I was going to go to medical school and become a doctor, but medicine everywhere is hard to get into and even at that age I realized what a what a tough proposition that was because medicine is the most sought-after career in Pakistan as well and for every spot there will be like a thousand students applying. So I knew it was tough. I decided, well, I’ll go to medicine if I can. If I don't make it to med school, I'm going to go to science school and be a scientist. And if I can’t make it in science, I can’t make it to science school either, then I'm going to be a classical Indian dancer.
Mike: I didn’t expect that answer.
Maliha. I had a plan, and a backup plan, and backup plan for the backup plan.
Mike: It sounded like two of those true, what about the third?
Maliha: Actually, all three came true.
Mike: So PhD, MD, and a dancer? Wow. Bravo
Maliha: I’m a silver three ballroom dancer.
Maliha: I'm literally the realization of my grandmother's dreams. My grandmother wanted to be a doctor but girls in her days didn't go to college, they hardly ever even went to school. She was the youngest of 10 children and her mother died in her forties when she was just a four-year-old. And growing up she was very thin and tall. I kind of take after her. I'm not tall at all but I was always thin like her and in those days she had some sort of a viral bronchitis and her doctor diagnosed her of course without even any chest x-ray that she had tuberculosis and told my great-grand father to not waste any time or money on her because she wasn't going to make it anyway. So my grandfather of course heartbroken and you know it was by her bedside every chance that he could get. Because she survived it she was allowed to go to college, all girls college, but when she wanted to become a doctor everybody for some reason said no you’re too frail, medical school is too hard, you're not going to go to medical school. She also wanted to learn how to dance, she was very interested in Indian classical dancing. This is pre-partition India and that was really scandalous for those times for a Muslim girl growing up in India. Muslim girls did not dance. So she wasn't allowed to do either one of them. So when I was five or six years old she just took me to a private teacher for Indian classical dancing. She kind of infused me with a love for dance from a very young age. Throughout my high school years throughout even medical school I did Indian classical dancing and I performed on stage.
Like other forms of exercise, dancing can be great for physical and mental health. Synchronizing music with movement involves some complex mental coordination. A 2016 study evaluating individual differences in rhythmic skills found that some people require external physical stimulation to perceive a beat, whereas others are able to generate a beat internally. People who were good at internally generating beats also performed well on synchronizing tasks that required them to predict tempo changes in music. Maliha has exposure to dance at a young age had an impact because she would continue dancing throughout her career. While studying in college, attending medical school, in the lab, teaching classes, or even pitching an idea to investors – Maliha was dancing.
Maliha: I did my two years in Canada, the International Baccalaureate, then I actually go to four year full scholarship to go to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts to do my undergrad in Biochemistry and I was loving every minute of it. But my family was all back in Pakistan and they were like we just sent you for 2 years not for forever! So my mother I think was kind of scared of just losing me to the West. I finally caved in and I said I will only apply to one medical school in Pakistan and if I get him I’ll come back if not I have my four years. So I finished only my freshman year at Clark University and in the intervening summer I applied to med school – Aga Khan University. That’s the only med school I applied to and I got in. After spending three years in North America, I was back in Pakistan. I did my medical training. It’s the British system, it was five years not four like it is over here. So I did my medicine. I loved it, enjoyed it, did well at school, and came back to the United States to do my internship residency. I went first to St Louis, two years of residency and I moved to Pittsburgh to do my Cardiology fellowship at UPMC. I fell in love with Pittsburgh at first sight. Pittsburgh was I think the eighth and last interview I went to for fellowship. Friday night I bought my ticket to fly to Pittsburgh Sunday night and the ticket last minute ticket price cost as much as a ticket to Pakistan. It was like eight, I still remember it was $803 and when you’re a resident in 1997 that was pretty expensive. I arrived in Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh Airport fairly late at night, almost like 10:30 at night, and by the time I took the shuttle to come to the Best Western that is now Panera opposite Magee-Women’s, it was the cheapest place I could find to stay. I took a shuttle which was free and fell asleep in the shuttle on the way and I just woke up as we entered the tunnels because they're so well lighted, the lights wake you up, and all of a sudden you're going through this dark area and you come out and the whole of Pittsburgh is laid out in front of you. It's an amazing sight. I fell in love with it.
Mike: Maliha moved to Pittsburgh in 1998 and began her 3 year fellowship with UPMC. During the final year, she spent time in a lab, which inspired her to get a PhD. So when Maliha finished the fellowship and began working as physician and practicing cardiologist, she also started working on a PhD in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2010, now with an MD and PhD, Maliha accepted a position in the relatively new Department of Developmental Biology -- first as a post-doctoral fellow, then as a research instructor, and eventually Research Assistant Professor. Maliah’s research reflected that of her mentor and department chair, Dr. Cecilia Lo. They had been researching developmental and genetic etiology of congenital heart disease, including the role of cilia, which are small hair like projections that beat in synchrony to maintain mucous flow and expel pollutants and pathogens from being inhaled. Beat in synchrony…..sounds familiar. Well, it became the basis of Maliah’s successful entry into the Pitt Innovation Challenge in 2018; however, it was earlier idea from her PhD training that led to her initial submission.
Mike: How did you get involved initially with the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh)?
Maliha: I actually reached out to a couple of folks with my idea for imaging using the peptide and literally you know everyone said wow really interesting go do it. So I started looking for funding and I applied for a whole host of areas. So PInCh 2016 announcement, that came and I was like well what's the harm in trying and Cecilia said, sure go ahead do it but don’t get your hopes too high because she had known people in the department who had applied for it and not made it through and it seemed like you know I was aiming for the moon and I got lucky.
Mike: Well, lucky perhaps but also a testament to your research and to the science to your effort as well to know you received an emerging innovator award last year here from the University of Pittsburgh. Did you ever envision yourself being a practicing physician, a researcher and then also some sense an entrepreneur?
Maliha: Oh my gosh, no. No, the child with the plan A, B, and C -- entrepreneurship, business was never on the cards. When I got PInCh 2016, I thought it was just going to be an award like any other award. They were just going to give me the money and go away, that didn't happen. I ended up knowing more departments that I didn't even know existed and people were very helpful. In fact, that happened even before I actually got the PInCh award. As soon as I cleared the second phase Don Taylor’s group sciVelo reached out and I worked closely with Danielle Minteer and Aneesh. I learned to kind of you know make the pitch. That was a very sharp steep learning curve, but I also got introduced to so many resources that I had no idea existed and everything I ever wanted to know and learn about commercialization, I ended up learning, because the PInCh award opened the door to so many different contacts and to so many learning avenues. I still think of Phil Brooks and Paul Petrovich as my very first teachers and mentors in entrepreneurship because through them I went through the Fourth Gear program the Second Gear program the Coulter program and set two webinars to learn more about the entire process and then most recently the National I-Corp core program as well. A lot of it wasn't planned. PInCh was definitely planned, but once PInCh came through there was a snowball effect and I just went with it and I kept wanting to learn more and more about it because as a scientist I knew how to formulate hypotheses to come up with the experiments, how to reject or accept what my premise is and as a physician even longer than a scientist I'm very comfortable taking blood pressures, taking pulses, writing prescriptions, and using all these drugs that billions of dollars of research innovation and millions of hours, work hours, have gone into putting into my hand. But that jump from the bench to the bedside that was a complete black hole. I mean it's still not my comfort zone, it’s still outside my comfort zone but at least because of all these training programs I got to know a lot more about what the process entails and what it takes and it's not just a physician and not just a scientist but a whole slew of folks in between that make it possible because otherwise it's just a paper, it’s just a button and it's not really useful.
Mike: Maliha won the Pitt Innovation Challenge in 2016 for a novel cardiac targeting peptide that can deliver therapeutics directly to the heart. She published and patented the technology while also forming a company to pursue the path of commercial translation. And then in 2018, she returned to the Pitt Innovation Challenge and won an award for another project, Lung-Health-E, which targets the root cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by increasing cilia number and function. Maliha has had to balance her research interests though with not only her cardiology practice but also her role as a mother.
Maliha: I had my first son in third year of residency because I thought that was the easiest time in the residency pathway and I had my second son in third year of fellowship. So I did that kind of while I was still in training. That maybe PhD actually doubly hard. I was a good student in medical school but I really am proud of my PhD and the reason why I am proud of my PhD is because when I was in medical school I was just a student. That was my only description. I was 100% medical student. I was not distracted by anything else. When I started my PhD, I was a student, but I was also a cardiologist and a teacher and I was doctor, a wife, and a mother. And I started my PhD with a one and a half year and a four and a half year old at home. So juggling that and not letting one aspect take over the rest was the tough part. Because the research was really exciting. I could have spent the whole night in the lab, it was that exciting. But I had to put the brakes on that on that and kind of parcel my life out and not let one part of my life invade the rest of it. So finding that discipline and not letting your enthusiasm carry you away was a learning experience as well. I always hope that I didn't ignore my children while they were growing up because they grow up so fast.
Mike: Is there any particular person or individual that you would consider a role model or mentor for you whether it be when you first move to Canada or even through your training and school and where you are at today?
Maliha: Oh yes, definitely. I am the product of efforts of dozens many many wonderful teachers, world famous folks, role models, mentors -- I've been blessed in that. I think the most important, well not the most important but the one that had the most effect on me or shaped me, was my science teacher from middle school, Mrs. Baptist. I don't even know if she's alive anymore, but I know the moment she made me fall in love with science. I remember the day I fell in love with science completely and I was hooked forever. It was the first chapter of the first physics book and we were taught to use calipers. They put calipers in our hands and we supposed to calculate the volume of the cylinder and basically do liquid displacement and just see how close we could get to the actual volume, the gold standard. There was only nine girls in my class and each one of them stood up and said the volume of the cylinder is blah blah blah blah and she would just shake her hand and yell at everyone and say no no no no you don't get it! And something happened. I was the 9th and the last girl. I think a light went off in my brain or something and I said my conclusion of experiment was that the calipers are accurate to two decimal places. I finally realized that nobody cares what the actual volume is, it’s trying to figure out if the calipers are really accurate or not. She jumped up, her face lit up, and literally I got my first standing ovation ever from my teacher who we were all petrified off. She was this four and half foot tall lady who always had her hair in a bun and always wore a sari and she was so terrifying, she was so strict, she expected so much out of you. So getting a standing ovation from her it was just the best positive reinforcement ever. That was it. That was the moment
Mike: If you could select one word to describe yourself or describe who you are what would that one word be?
Mike: Why do you say that?
Maliha: Or persistent. Well, let’s be kind to me. Persistence. I don’t know how to give up. You need persistence for science. You definitely need persistence for funding and grant applications, but sometimes it almost becomes a weakness because it's a losing battle and I just don't know it. Before I didn't even realize how much work needed to be done in the last two years, thanks to a lot of people educating me, a lot of people very generously giving me their time and mentoring me, I've actually realized, and I'm glad I didn't realize it before because if I had realized how much work it was, it might have been too daunting and too scary to even start. I'm glad I closed my eyes and just jumped. Now I realize what a big project, basically cardiac targeting peptide and maybe even LungHealth-E will end up being. I realize my work is laid out in front of me but this is just the beginning. This is the beginning of the journey.
Mike: The best is yet to come
Maliha: Let’s hope. Let’s hope.
Mike: Maliha Zahid, MD, PhD, Cardiologist and Research Assistant Professor of Developmental Biology at the University of Pittsburgh. And by the way, Maliha remains actively involved in ballroom dancing. In fact, she even got her two sons dancing.
Mike: That’s our show. Thank you for listening to the Products of Pittsburgh. If you know an extraordinary individual, someone who is having a positive impact on the Pittsburgh community, let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And be sure to check out our website www.ctsi.pitt.edu to learn more. I’m Mike Flock along with Bee Schindler and Zach Ferguson, until next time on the Products of Pittsburgh.