Aisha Ahmed

MHIF Provided a Place to Grow and Thrive as She Pursued Her Professional Dreams in Health Care

To say former MHIF employee Aisha Ahmed has strong ambition and drive would be something of a huge understatement. While the Twin Cities native left MHIF in September 2020 to attend the Physician Assistant (PA) Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her 10-year plan includes hopefully rejoining the MHIF family. She plans to complete two master’s degrees in physician assistant studies and public health, gain clinical experience working as a physician assistant in the cardiology field, attain her MBA, and then her goal is to ideally become the director of MHIF’s Valve Science Center, where she spent 7-1/2 years learning and growing.

“I’m so grateful for everything MHIF provided for me in all these great years,” said Aisha.

“And I hope to stay touch with a lot of the physicians I worked with, so hopefully upon graduation from PA school, I can give one of them a call and just say, ‘Hey, hire me.’ I just feel very grateful for such great mentors and I honestly feel like these connections are lifelong.”

The PA program Aisha is attending is pretty competitive for applicants, and she said her broad experiences at MHIF made her a stronger candidate and definitely set her apart. She said her and her fellow PA students were talking one day about their experiences and past public health experience. She shared with them her experience learning about heart valve disease, attending and volunteering at community awareness events on valve disease and learning about MHIF’s research impact, and that she had even published 10 papers in professional journals as first author.

“People couldn’t believe it,” said Aisha. “They were like, ‘Wow, we can’t believe you were able to accomplish all that with just an undergraduate degree. And I was like, ‘It’s all because of MHIF.’ “

Aisha continued, “I had such a great support system at MHIF; I loved working for MHIF. All my colleagues were always so supportive and willing to help me learn and give me opportunities. Every day I was learning something or meeting my potential. Because of that support system, I feel like I do know my potential. And hopefully with their continued support, I can reach my goals and have a great impact on the medical community.”

From part-time summer associate to research coordinator

Aisha’s path at MHIF began when she was a freshman at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2012 and applied to MHIF’s highly competitive summer Research Internship Program. Although the program typically accepts juniors or seniors who are applying to medical school, she applied anyway at the urging of a friend, who had been a Lead Intern in the program. Little did she know at the time what a smart move that would turn out to be for both her personal growth and her professional career aspirations in health care.

While she didn’t get accepted to the internship program (she was chosen as intern #13 for the 12 spots in the program), her educational accomplishments, drive and skill set attracted the attention of Lisa Tindell, MHIF’s vice president for clinical research operations, who at the time was managing research in the valve area. Lisa asked her to become a part-time research associate working with the Valve Team over the summer of 2013. Aisha said she “had a blast” over the summer and that she learned so much and had so many opportunities.

Lisa then asked Aisha to stay on part-time during the school year, and for the next three years, she worked at MHIF part-time before and after classes while finishing college, mostly supporting MHIF’s industry-sponsored clinical trials. She also noticed that Dr. Paul Sorajja (who is now the Roger L. and Lynn C. Headrick Family Chair of the Valve Science Center) had a lot of publishing experience and was “like a goldmine of ideas,” but at that time, MHIF’s Valve Science Center wasn’t fully established. After emailing him and expressing her desire to work with him on a project, Aisha began volunteering her time on weekends to work on three of his investigator-initiated research (IIR) projects.

After graduating from college with a degree in genetics, cell biology and development, Aisha was planning to apply to medical school, but her pre-med advisor didn’t recommend that. Even though she had graduated college after just three years (she’d taken two years of college classes while still in high school), she would actually be less competitive as an applicant because she was lacking a year of experiences that other applicants would have. Her advisor said they also look at age and maturity as a factor, so being a year younger was a negative factor, too.

Her advisor encouraged her to work for another year to gain experience and Aisha was promoted at MHIF to a full-time associate research coordinator. With her interest in working on IIR studies and her affinity to publish in professional journals, Dr. Sorajja also made her a Valve Science Center scholar. She spent 75 percent of her time as a research coordinator on industry-sponsored studies and 25 percent on IIR studies. Over time, as the Valve Science Center began attracting international scholars from other countries to assist with IIR research, Aisha began onboarding and assisting them in their new roles and became very close to them personally. A year later, she was promoted again to research coordinator.

“Incredible opportunities” to publish, present and be part of a team

“I loved my role. Dr. Sorajja was so gracious in giving me opportunities to publish and even presenting those publications,” said Aisha. “I know other PIs (principal investigators) are not usually as generous. If you’re a student working on a project and the project gets accepted at a conference, typically the PI will be the one to present at that conference or the one to be lead author. He was just very, very generous in allowing me to have incredible opportunities within the Valve program. Even though he is super busy, he really does make time to appreciate and mentor and help people grow.”

She continued, “And even beyond that, I really felt like I was part of the team. In no way did I feel like, ‘Oh, I’m just a student, I don’t have a comprehensive medical background.’ The Valve program and the Valve team really made me feel like I was a valued part of the team. And even though I didn’t feel like technically I contributed a lot, they always just made me feel like I contributed a lot. So it was just a very positive environment to work in. Because the physicians like Dr. Garcia, Dr. Sorajja and Dr. Gössl are all so passionate about valve disease and how it’s a public health crisis, it became a passion of mine, too. Now that I know that valve disease is so underdiagnosed and undertreated, I feel that getting my master’s in public health will help me have a greater impact on advocating for those patients in the future.”

As part of PA school, Aisha will do a rotation in each of the major specialties over 12 months, and could also choose to repeat a rotation in a specialty such as cardiology if desired. Since she already knows what she wants to do, she was asked if it really mattered what all those other specialties are.

“Yeah, right now I know what I want to do, but I’m worried that I might do a rotation and fall in love with it even more than cardiology. And then I’m like, ‘Oh my, what am I going do?’”