DOHA // At two and a half years old, Iqbal al Assaad taught herself to count from one to 10 in Arabic and English. At five, she was in the second grade alongside seven-year-olds. At the age of nine she passed standardised ninth grade tests for 14-year-olds with flying colours.
“My father said every year we’re going to do this, you’re going to skip one grade and go to the upper one, and it worked out,” said Iqbal, as if it were as easy as skipping rope.
Today she is a 16-year-old medical student at one of the most prestigious medical schools in the region, Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. “Maybe other students don’t have this motivation, but I like to study,” she said. “Since I was very young I would go up to my father and ask him to teach me something new.”
That curiosity and a preternatural focus have Iqbal poised to become one of the youngest Arab doctors in modern times.
“It is extremely impressive to have her in class, a student so young and at the same time so mature and capable in handling a very challenging curriculum,” said Prof Marco Ameduri, a Weill Cornell physics professor who taught Iqbal in two premed courses in 2008.
Iqbal grew up in Bakaa, Lebanon, the youngest of four children. Her father ran a covenience shop and her mother ran the house, where studying became a point of pride. Her eldest sister, 25, is married, but hopes to return to university. Her eldest brother, 23, is completing his studies as a mechanical engineer, while the other is writing his master’s thesis in physics, at 20 years old.
The real prodigy is Iqbal – but she has not done it on her own. To help her pass that ninth-grade standardised test, Lebanon’s education minister wrote a letter authorising her to take the test. Soon after, Iqbal fell ill and her parents took her to a local physician.
“He didn’t give me enough time, he didn’t give enough attention to what I wanted to tell him about my sickness,” Iqbal recalled. “It didn’t have such a big impact with me but maybe in other cases, like in cancer patients, where the psychological plays a big role, if the doctor doesn’t treat that patient very well, there’s going to be an impact on the patient – that’s what drove me to become a doctor.”
Hearing of her dream, the Lebanese education minister helped Iqbal again, requesting assistance from the Qatari first lady, Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser al Missned, who oversees the Qatar Foundation, which runs Education City. Sheikha Mozah granted Iqbal a full scholarship to an undergrad program at Weill Cornell, then helped her move to Qatar with her mother in January 2006. Only 12 years old, Iqbal was not intimidated by an unfamiliar country, the vast campus or her much older classmates. She has never known classmates her own age, yet they have never rejected or troubled her.
“I don’t feel that I’m younger than my fellow students – since I was five years old I’ve been with students that are older than me, so I’ve got used to it,” she said. “My classmates have always had the ability to accept me as one of them, and that’s what has happened here at Weill Cornell.” During a recent interview at her Education City campus, she responded to a reporter’s questions eloquently and without haste or apparent anxiety.
“Just observing her interactions with other students, you would not know that she was younger,” said Prof Ameduri, who is also the assistant dean for student affairs. “In fact, I saw her as a student leader, bringing students together, forming study groups and things like that.”
Yet she is up to a decade younger than most of her class, which is set to graduate in the spring of 2013. Iqbal, however, plans to take a gap year, or perform research for a year, before returning to Weill Cornell to graduate and become a doctor in 2014.
Thus she is no threat to become the world’s youngest doctor, widely believed to be Balamurali Ambati, an Indian who in 1995 graduated from Mount Sinai School of Medicine two months shy of his 18th birthday. Still, after three years of undergraduate and premed studies, Iqbal began medical school last fall. She completed her first term last week, which she said was “very good”.
She looked forward to anatomy and human structure classes, and, down the line, conducting physical exams and working with real patients. She plans to be a surgeon, maybe a neurosurgeon.
“I can predict and expect a very brilliant career for her,” Prof Ameduri said. “She will be very successful in clinical care of her patients and in research, and someday I hope to see her back here.”
He will probably get his wish. “I feel responsible towards this country, Qatar, and I want to come back after I finish [medical school] to pay this country back,” Iqbal said, thanking Sheikha Mozah, the university and the Qatar Foundation.
Before leaving for term break, she reflected on her accomplishments. “I’m an example: I’m a woman, but still I made it,” she said. “If you have the motivation and you have the abilities, no one’s going to stop you, whether you’re a woman or a man.”
----- originally appeared in Jan 22 2010, The National, www.thenational.ae