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Profile: Dr Bahaa Attaallah

Bahaa Attaallah in Radcliffe Square

Dr Bahaa Attaallah (2018, DPhil Medicine)

Bahaa, Rhodes Scholar, is working towards a DPhil in Clinical Neurosciences with Professor Masud Husain and Professor Sanjay Manohar as well as being an honorary clinical fellow. After finishing high school in Palestine, he ranked as one of the top 10 students nationally and as a result, was awarded a presidential scholarship to study medicine (MD) at Al-Quds University, Jerusalem (Gaza branch). After working as a junior doctor in different hospitals and clinics in Gaza, Bahaa moved to the UK to pursue an MSc in Cognitive Neurosciences (distinction) at Durham University as Durham Palestine Educational Trust (DPET) scholar before coming to UNiv. 

Why did you decide to pursue research having practised medicine as a junior doctor?
The long answer: I really struggle answering “Why” questions. I can say something like: One of my long-term goals is to become a clinician-scientist and thus doing research is a natural path to follow for someone like me. But I usually fail to capture the real reason behind such decisions in my life. However, I know this: at some point, this decision was an escape for me, not from medicine but from a trajectory in my life that I imagined my future self regretting if I ended up following. And so while I feel that some forces are pulling me towards pursuing research (e.g., enhancing my career options or hoping to have a bigger contribution to human prosperity than what medicine alone would offer) other forces are pushing me away from a space that I do not want to be in.
The short answer: I enjoy it.

Give your specialist subject elevator pitch.
I am doing a DPhil in clinical neuroscience investigating the mechanisms underlying common neuropsychiatric syndromes such as apathy and anxiety. These syndromes usually cross the boundaries of disease and health (i.e., they are present in healthy people as well as different patient groups) and in fact, can be very debilitating in certain neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. One way of thinking of such syndromes is to regard them as problems in decision making or in the processes surrounding decision making. For example, we are often faced with situations where we have to decide and act under uncertainty. These could be simple decisions (e.g., deciding what to have for lunch) or life-changing (e.g., whether to stay in academia after finishing a PhD). Some people might be (or feel) more anxious than others making such decisions because they might be less comfortable with uncertainty, or because they feel they need more time to process, or because they see more risk involved than there actually is, etc. My research aims to identify such problems in decision making and their relationship to neuropsychiatric and neurocognitive disorders, develop tools to objectively measure them, and investigate their underlying brain correlates.

How did it feel to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship?
I remember I had a strange feeling back then, in addition to all the feelings one would feel when they achieve something (e.g., joy, happiness, excitement, etc.); I felt safe and secure.

Has anything surprised you about Oxford?
No. Perhaps this is surprising in itself?

How has the pandemic altered your research/life? 
Dramatically. My research is essentially human-facing and depends hugely on meeting people (healthy volunteers and patients). Luckily, I collected a lot of data before the start of the pandemic, so I shifted my focus to analysis and writing. Our research group has also adapted well to the new situation, we are developing (and have used) online tools that allow us to collect data and continue some aspects of our research remotely.

How do you feel you have changed since you stepped through Univ’s doors for the first time?
I think I am calmer now. I mean internally, with myself.

Describe Univ in three words.
Peaceful, friendly, supportive.

Published: 9 April 2021

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