Duke's Samad named Chairwoman of Dept. of Medicine at Aga Khan University in Pakistan


On July 1, 2018, Zainab Samad, MBBS, MHS, associate professor of Medicine at Duke, became the first chairwoman of the Department of Medicine at Aga Khan University in Pakistan, her alma mater. This is quite an accomplishment for anyone, but in particular for a woman from a highly conservative Pashtun family in northern Pakistan. There, young girls traditionally were not allowed to attend school in accordance with the practice of purdah, the global religious idea that women should be physically segregated from men.

Samad’s parents, however, both physicians, were determined that she would be educated and sent her to school in Karachi, Pakistan. Samad attended St. Joseph’s Convent School and College, and then medical school at Aga Khan University, an independent global research university with its primary campus in Pakistan. In 2000, Samad graduated from the Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) program with honors and amongst the top students of her class.

Now, eighteen years later, Samad will begin work as the first woman— as well as the youngest and first alumnus—to ever be chair of the Department of Medicine at Aga Khan.

Although her career came full circle back to Pakistan, it’s the part in the middle—when Samad was training at Duke University as a resident, fellow, and then, working as a cardiologist and professor—that she credits to being a key time of personal growth.

“I grew up here,” said Samad, who came to Duke when she was 24 years old and has spent 16 years here. “I’ve spent my entire independent life here.”

Zainab Samad, MBBS, MHS
Zainab Samad, MBBS, MHS

Samad completed her residency in internal medicine in 2005 and a fellowship in cardiology, including advanced fellowships in cardiovascular imaging, in 2009, both at Duke. She was selected as an assistant chief medical resident and served in that role from 2004-2005. As a cardiovascular diseases fellow, Samad participated in the National Institutes of Health – Duke University Clinical Research Training Program and earned a Masters’ Degree in Health Sciences.

At the completion of her training in 2009, Samad joined the Duke faculty in the Department of Medicine with a passionate commitment to a career integrating patient care, research and education. Her academic efforts have focused on developing and strengthening trainees’ skills and knowledge, and ensuring they have resources for research in cardiovascular disease. Her own research focuses on the use of cardiovascular imaging to understand and identify patients with heart disease risks. She is also interested in identifying ways in which big data can be leveraged to better understand disease patterns.

As a junior faculty member, Samad participated in LEADER, a School of Medicine leadership development course for junior and mid-career faculty members across the university.  This course and her participation in the School of Medicine’s Faculty Development Academy helped her navigate several leadership roles at Duke, including assistant director of research at the Duke Echocardiography Lab and director of Site-Based Research in Cardiovascular Imaging at the Duke Heart Center.

She has also received numerous teaching awards, including the Robert Waugh Teaching Award in 2014, the Department of Medicine Teaching Award in 2015 and the Thomas Bashore Teaching Award in 2013 and 2017.

“Zainab is a superstar of medicine,” said Daniel Mark, MD, professor of medicine at Duke. “It was evident from our earliest interactions during her training that she would achieve great things and events to date show that initial impression was on target.”

Samad credits her successes as a researcher, clinician, physician and educator to her parents, her supportive spouse, the many fulfilling personal relationships she has developed at Duke, and the colleagues who have quickly become role models.  Her colleagues in the Division of Cardiology, the Department of Medicine, as well as School of Medicine Dean Mary E. Klotman, MD, have especially made an impact in her life, convincing her that the sky is the limit.

“I think that having positive role models is very important. It allows us to dream of the possibilities,” said Samad.

In her new role as chair, Samad will focus on building resources at Aga Khan University in two distinct ways.   First, she wants to develop a multidisciplinary research training pathway targeting non-communicable diseases in Pakistan.

Non-communicable diseases such as ischemic heart disease, cancer, hypertension and diabetes represent an unprecedented global crisis and are now responsible for 70 percent of all deaths, both in developed countries and worldwide, according to Samad.   They are also one of the biggest economic threats to low-income countries, stalling development because families of patients are forced to pay for treatment rather than invest in education and nutrition for their children.

“These are challenging times for health care professionals in Pakistan,” said Samad. “They are trying to deal with the epidemic of non-communicable diseases while they continue to struggle with a large burden of infectious diseases.”

Samad’s second goal in her new role is to create research resources by making use of the university’s large electronic health record database, which includes data from the university’s satellite campuses in East Africa, Afghanistan and other locations across the globe.

“So far, this data hasn’t been tapped,” said Samad.  “My research has allowed me to harness the potential of large, multi-dimensional, linked datasets at Duke, and I’d like to be able to translate and build upon this work and experience at Aga Khan.  I’d like to build research programs that leverage aggregated clinical data, integrate research training efforts, and allow for innovative insights into disease patterns in the developing world. Finally, I would like to use those insights to effectively allocate health care resources and develop safe, cost-effective, health interventions.”

Samad plans to achieve these goals while empowering women in the process.

“In many countries still, the potential of an entire gender is still untapped,” said Samad.  “Where would those countries be if women were able to contribute fully to society? I’d like to be able to take research and education to the next level through gender inclusive capacity building efforts with an eye towards engaging women.”

“I have known Zainab since she was an intern at Duke,” said Manesh Patel, MD, chief of the Division of Cardiology in the Department of Medicine at Duke.  “Over the years she has been a tireless teacher, clinician, and perhaps most importantly, she has remained a humanist.  In every situation she has been curious, patient- based, and always searching to make a difference.  I am proud to have her as a colleague and I am sure she will be an amazing leader in Medicine in Pakistan and the world.”

Read about Samad's first year in her new role in the 2019 Spring Issue of DukeMed Alumni News.

Lindsay Key is the science writer for the Duke University School of Medicine and editor of the online storytelling magazine Magnify.