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Commencement spotlight: Ali Syed

Never lead with fear.

That is the collective advice Ali Syed received from his family growing up in Loveland, Ohio, that has stayed with him throughout his journey through NEOMED’s College of Medicine.

“I think at times when we are in a really difficult situation or we’re stuck between choices, it’s easy to let your mind wander into a place where it’s more motivated by fear, or more motivated by avoiding danger, than it is pursuing something wonderful or pursuing something greater,” he said. “When I was placed in positions where I was very afraid or I was in a really difficult situation, I kept that advice in mind. And instead of focusing on the negative potential outcomes, focusing on what you can build and what you can create with the opportunities you’ve been given is always going to lead to not only a more positive mindset, but a better outcome.”

That mindset had served him well. Syed will serve as gonfolonian – College flag-bearer and top of his class – at NEOMED’s Commencement Ceremony Saturday, May 6, at E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall in Akron.

As the first in his family to pursue a career in the health professions, Syed grew up thinking he would an engineer, like his dad.

“I was always into science. I loved math. I loved just understanding things. And so that naturally led me to [want to do] something in science,” he recalled. “But then throughout high school, I started to really enjoy biology and subjects like that, and that led me into medicine.”

Another reason for the shift in career goals? People.

“I realized that I love spending time with people day in and day out,” Syed noted. “So I couldn’t imagine myself in an occupation where I didn’t spend the majority of my day either working with a team of people or working with a patient, to talk to them, listen to their problems, and then use your own unique skills and your own unique knowledge to come up with solutions for them.”

Syed attended the University of Akron and matriculated to NEOMED as part of the last cohort in the six-year B.S./M.D. program.

While many of his favorite memories of NEOMED will likely be from his first year in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, his most transformative experiences came during clerkships.

“I really enjoyed every clerkship because I was doing what I wanted to do – spending time with people – and having those experiences where I got to help deliver a baby for the first time, where I got to assist in a C-section or where I had to deliver news of a diagnosis. Those were all experiences that I inherently enjoyed,” he said. “But then I also realized I was gaining so much from it. No matter what I chose as a specialty moving forward, I was really just rounding out my skill set to become a better physician overall.”

After each rotation, Syed made time for reflection to help him in deciding his future specialization.

“I realized by the end of [clerkship rotations] that I could see myself happy in so many different specialties. I ultimately decided on ophthalmology because it gives a lot of balance in terms of what you could pursue,” he said. “I was personally just drawn to the variety ophthalmology offered in terms of the practice as well as the intense sort of knowledge base that’s required to be an ophthalmologist.”

Syed will begin his residency at Case Western/University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

And after that? He’s keeping an open mind on that, though “I do anticipate staying within the Midwest, if not Ohio, and really staying close to my home and close to my family,” he said.

Wherever he lands, he is likely to find success.

“Ali exemplifies everything we hope a graduate from NEOMED will be. Not only is he academically talented, but he demonstrates compassion, empathy and humility in his approach to patient care, as well as his interactions with his peers, NEOMED staff and faculty,” said Corrie Stofcho, M.D., FAAP, assistant dean of student affairs in the College of Medicine. “I am looking forward to following Ali’s career and witnessing the wonderful things he will accomplish.”

Advice for M1s

Ali Syed shared the following advice for those beginning their journey in medical school.

“Get involved very early on,” he said. “If there’s a meeting for something like the Internal Medicine Interest Group, even if you never saw yourself doing that, just put yourself out there and really involve yourself on campus. Over time you’re going to be able to find your group of people or subset of activities that you’re interested in.

“That early involvement is really essential because you only get busier as medical school progresses,” he added. “And it’s a good thing that you’re getting busier, but you’re going to miss those opportunities that you had early on, to really spend time with people.”

For those high school students or others who are thinking about a future in medicine, what would he tell them?

“I would say one of the most important things you can do is just talk to people. Talk to people who are in medical school. Talk to people who are in residency. Talk to people who are physicians. Really hear the ups and downs of everything, because nothing is going to be perfect, and you really have to understand yourself and what you’re interested in,” he said. “I truly do think medicine has something for everyone, but you’re going to be the most prepared, the more people you talk to.”

Finally, some parting advice that everyone can use:

“Compartmentalization is really important,” he said. “Being able to have a space where you feel like you can just sit back and relax and clear your plate before you move on to something else is really important. For me, that would be my car. After a long day in clinic, coming back to my car and just being able to debrief and look at the amazing things I saw that day and process some of the negative things I saw was really important.”