Giving path leads to great rewards

With two kids in medical school and one recently earning the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Doctoral Scholarship, the Azads must be doing something right.

Maybe it's the fact that Aristotle and Pam Azad chose to dedicate their own lives to helping others.

He's a vascular surgeon and she's a former nurse practitioner and nurse clinician turned consultant and Canadian Cancer Society administrator.

And, in fact, they came to Kamloops more than two decades ago to help out when they learned people had to travel four hours to undergo vascular surgery.

Now their children Marisa, 23, and Nicholas, 22, are continuing what appears to be a family tradition of compassion.

"Aris and I both tried to instil in them how important it is to give back to your community. It's a very important thing that I'm glad both kids have internalized," said Pam.

The siblings encapsulate a streak of humanitarianism among the young that can be mind-boggling for those who revelled in the heyday of the 1980s "me generation."

"I knew from about the age of six or seven that I wanted to help people," said Nicholas, who begins medical school at UBC in September with a mind to cardio-thoracic surgery.

"I noticed that a lot of communities, especially Aboriginal and ethnic minorities, were being underserved and didn't have that much accessibility to health programs, so that's kind of where I wanted to get into it."

Marisa is in her second year of a combined MD/PhD at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. Her research is focused on identifying ways to block antibiotic resistance, which is currently an area of great medical significance with the rise of "super bugs" and diminishing pipeline of new drugs.

Every year more than 250,000 Canadians pick up deadly super bugsat hospitals resulting in more than 8,000 deaths. Marisa wants to uncover a solution while providing hands-on treatment.

"My dream job would be clinician-scientist, where you have your own clinic and your own lab where you do your research looking at designing new drugs and making sure they're tailored towards the patients that need them," she said.

The high achieving siblings have received a number of accolades in their short lives, and last month Marisa discovered Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be presenting her with the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Doctoral Scholarship during a ceremony in July.

She was ranked one of the top 20 doctoral research students in Canada.

"I'm still kind of in shock because, for graduate students, this is the top award you can get at this level," said Marisa. "I'm still kind of speechless. I'm honoured."

Vanier scholars are chosen for leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate studies in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering, and health.

Recipients receive $50,000 each year for three years.

And in true altruistic fashion, Marisa intends to spend much of the funds on research needs.

Aristotle is, understandably, very proud and he admits that part of his joy for both kids' success is that they will be "able to look after themselves."

And perhaps as a vestige of his own generation, he was especially keen that his daughter be independent, and not reliant on a man.

"Nicholas always knew what he wanted to do. Marisa, I wasn't sure about. I was tickled pink when she said she was going to do medicine," he said.

With two such high-achieving siblings in the same family, one would think some sort of rivalry is bound to crop up. But not so, said Nicholas. They are, in fact, very close friends.

"We both help each other out," he said. "And I think encouragement is the best thing. That goes a long way."

Those wondering how people can be so lucky may want to take note: It seems every time the Azads give back to the community, their rewards increase.

Through it all, the siblings never forgot to be charitable, said Pam.

"Marisa and Nicholas were both very, very active in extracurricular things, starting clubs, helping underprivileged people and people in need," said Pam.

And Marisa's choice to support Thompson Rivers University during her undergraduate years paid off in spades when the smaller university setting allowed her to pursue more advanced academic interests than a large university, with 1,500 students per class, could ever have.

"I have to sing the praises of TRU for both our kids because it gave them incredible access to profs who are very excited about their research and gave them wonderful undergraduate research experience," said Pam.

Aristotle echoes his wife's sentiments, saying many in Kamloops seem to have an inferiority complex of sorts, which causes them to overlook the great amenities the city offers. It's too bad, he said, because TRU is top notch.

"When I look at the statistics for medicine this year, (medical schools) took about 10 kids from this university here," he said. "Maclean's magazine said this is an up-and-coming university. That's nothing to laugh at. It weren't for this place, my kids wouldn't be where they are."

The choice led to furthering Marisa's career when she and faculty supervisor Heidi Huttunen-Hennelly undertook research that resulted in a patent and published paper.

Another decision led Marisa to turn down a $480,000 scholarship to study at the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

"She felt ethically it was the right thing to do to stay in Canada," said Pam. "She felt that she had gotten a wonderful education here and scholarships from the Canadian taxpayers. We talked a lot about the brain drain to the U.S."

That seems to make her an even better fit for the Vanier scholarship program, which aims to attract and retain world-class doctoral students into Canada.

Of course there's no discounting all the time and energy she has put into her academic pursuits.

"She's worked very hard, and she deserves it," said Aristotle.

Even the praise of a proud father may be an understatement. Earning such accolades in this day and age takes an inordinate amount of work and it can't happen with mere academic success.

Marisa also received honours for her oil paintings and as a team member of the Vancouver Whitecaps reserve soccer team, she was within reach of Olympic competition.

At a very young age, Marisa decided to pursue everything she undertook to the fullest just to see how far she could go.

"She always told me she wanted to be the best person she could be. We never pushed her," said Pam, adding with a laugh, "if anything, we'd say, 'You know hon, you don't have to do this.'"

Marisa said she realized early on that a balance of interests is key. Her motto is "Life is short, enjoy it."

"A lot of people in an MD/PhD program have zero balance. It's very sad. They aren't very healthy. You can see them cracking."

The philosophy has led to a very full life, by all accounts. Marisa creates poster art for friends and "loves" hiking and yoga, sports and music, "pretty much everything," she said.

Marisa's research supervisor is convinced her breadth of interests and zest for life made her the right choice for the Vanier scholarship.

"She has a tremendous amount of energy and among the most creative and intelligent students I have had in over 19 years of training graduate students," said Dr. Gerry Wright, director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster.

"She's a remarkable free spirit with wide-ranging interests from art to medicine. The Vanier award recognizes not only her current ability and potential for scholarship, but also takes into account this breadth of interests. She's the whole package."

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