Meet Vanier Scholar Farid Foroutan

Photo by Kevin Patrick Robbins

Farid Foroutan, a PhD student in the Faculty of Health Science’s Health Research Methods, Evidence and Impact program, was born in Tehran and came to Canada with his parents when he was 11 years old. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, focusing on human biology and specializing in neuroscience and physiology.

Here, he talks about his research on organ transplantation, what it’s like to bike through Nepal and his mom.

On his research

We’re trying to find a way to improve the number and function of transplanted organs by helping to determine the optimal medical care for deceased organ donors.

Currently, we don’t have a good way to compare the effect of specific medical interventions on multiple organs. For example, a common intervention for the kidneys is to flush them with fluid – but that raises intravascular pressure, and that stresses the heart.

Studies that are done on these types of interventions tend to look at a single organ – but one donor may provide organs for up to eight recipients, so in a randomized controlled trial it’s important to be able to easily measure the function of all transplanted organs. Just looking at the short-term rate of transplantation doesn’t give us a complete picture, nor does looking at long-term recipient survival.

What we’re trying to develop is an outcome measure for randomized controlled trials that integrates the functions of multiple organs from one donor, which will provide information for the first months or year after transplant and which will give us an idea about long-term outcomes.

In the future, this could help us come up with future interventions that might make more donors acceptable for transplantation. We might make more donors compatible with more recipients, which means more people will get transplant organs.

On how he got into research

In high school, I was fascinated by biological sciences – I was really interested in subjects like human anatomy.

My science teacher suggested I get a volunteer job to see if I liked working with patients. I ended up volunteering at the dialysis centre in King City that’s connected with the hospital in Richmond Hill. I enjoyed that, and decided to concentrate on health sciences in undergrad. I went to U of T to study life sciences, where I focused on human biology and specialized in neuroscience and physiology.

When it became difficult to volunteer in Richmond Hill, I started volunteering at Toronto General Hospital in the multi-organ transplant ambulatory care clinic. I still volunteer with them to this day.

In 2011, I heard that U of T had a research program for undergraduate students. I really wanted to do research – through my volunteering, I had seen in the clinical side of things, and now I wanted to see the other side. Working in the outpatient clinic, I had been introduced to the idea that research informs clinical practice and plays a key role in the decisions that clinicians make about what to do and what not to do.

I got placed with a cardiac transplant team, working with Dr. Heather Ross and Dr. Carolina Alba on research projects, which were mostly outcome-based, observational studies that were trying to better predict which heart failure patients would ultimately require a heart transplant.

As I finished my undergrad, I realized that without a doubt I wanted to do research. I came to Mac to do my master’s in the Health Research Methodology program with Dr. Gordon Guyatt, and he suggested I pursue a PhD.

On travelling to Everest base camp

I’m part of an expedition team called Test Your Limits, which was started in 2006 by my boss in Toronto, Dr. Heather Ross. She’s done expeditions to the North Pole, South Pole, Greenland and Antarctica with one of her transplant patients, Dale Shippam, to raise awareness for healthy heart living and organ donation, and to show that your life doesn’t have to be limited after you’ve had a heart transplant.

In 2017, I was invited to travel with the group to Lhasa, Tibet. From Lhasa we biked more than 1,000 kilometres to Everest base camp. Our average cruising altitude was 4,200 metres above sea level.

The unforgettable moment of the trip happened at the final pass we had to go through before reaching base camp. It was going to be our first glimpse of Everest, but it was a cloudy day. We went back to our camp, but then our guide got a call from the restaurant at the pass – the clouds were lifting. We almost came to tears, watching the clouds slowly clear away from Everest. We only turned back to go to camp when it got too dark to see the mountain.

On his mom

While I’m lucky to have wonderful professional mentors, my ultimate mentor is my mom. She’s the strongest person I know.

I was born in Iran and grew up Tehran, the capital. My parents decided to immigrate to Canada so I could have a better trajectory for my future. My mom was a successful architect in Tehran, and was the head of her department, which was unusual for a woman at that time.

Everything that I know about being resilient and pushing through and making something of yourself is through my mom’s life and her struggles and what she had to give up in Iran to make this life possible for all of us. She’s my biggest inspiration.

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships are the Government of Canada’s most prestigious awards for doctoral students. The program provides $50,000 per year for up to three years to students who demonstrate academic excellence, research potential and leadership ability. Up to 166 awards are distributed each year by three federal granting agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). This year, 10 McMaster students received Vanier scholarships.

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