Sept. 17, 2020

UCalgary researcher, clinician receives international mentorship award

Sofia Ahmed places great value on supporting students
Dr. Sofia Ahmed, MD and her mentee Cindy Kalenga
Dr. Sofia Ahmed poses with her student Cindy Kalenga Dawn Smith

When you first meet Dr. Sofia Ahmed, MD, you are struck by her kindness and quiet humility. But mistaking Ahmed’s demeanour for apathy would be a mistake. The reality is the kidney specialist and researcher at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) is an inspiring and passionate mentor to her trainees, staff and many of her colleagues.

Those who work with Ahmed likely will be unsurprised to hear she is receiving a Distinguished Mentor Award from the American Society of Nephrology during the organization’s virtual conference this fall, which brings together 13,000 kidney specialists from across North America annually.  

  • Photo above: Sofia Ahmed, left, and her mentee Cindy Kalenga. Photo by Dawn Smith

Winning the award means a lot to Ahmed, who, midway through her career has worked with numerous research and clinical trainees.

 “I am honoured by this recognition,” says Ahmed, noting she was humbled by the nomination letter for the international award, put together by leaders within the CSM and Alberta Health Services. The nomination letter states of Ahmed, “No individual is more deserving or has had more of a positive impact on training the next generation of kidney clinicians and researchers.”

Students contribute to success of mentor

Ahmed is quick to recognize the students with whom she has worked for contributing to her success as a mentor.  

“The credit needs to go to the incredible trainees with whom I have worked during my career,” she says. “I get so much from my students.”

Ahmed’s unique ability to mentor is evident through the many successes of her students. Overall, she has had more than 100 peer-reviewed publications. Her students have been first author on 35 of those publications, revealing her ability to train and mentor her students.

Some highlights of this success include her former student Dr. David Nicholl, MD, who is now a transplant nephrology fellow at the University of British Columbia. Under her supervision, Nicholl received an American Physiology Society Select Award, a highly competitive American Society of Nephrology (ASN) student scholarship to fund his graduate studies, and was a top 10 finalist for Western Canada for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

Her former student Dr. Ann Zalucky, MD, who is now a critical care medicine resident at the University of Toronto, received an ASN student scholarship to fund her graduate studies and was named a Top 40 Under 40 by Avenue Magazine Calgary for her research accomplishments.

Ahmed’s current PhD student, Cindy Kalenga, received a UCalgary-wide 2020 Women’s Resource Centre Distinguished Graduate Student Award for her work examining the associations between estrogen use and blood pressure, work that was also recognized through an invited oral presentation at the American Heart Association 2019 Hypertension Scientific Sessions meeting.

Kalenga attributes much of her success to Ahmed’s ability to bring out the best in her trainees.

“Dr. Ahmed has the unique ability to push her students to beyond their limits while remaining encouraging and supportive,” says Kalenga. “The success I’ve experienced thus far is largely due to her ability to recognize my unique skills and interests and identify where they would make the greatest contribution.

I consider myself very fortunate to have such an incredible mentor to guide me through my career in medicine.

Besides supervising trainees, Ahmed serves on the Nephrology Residency Training Committee at the University of Calgary, is the education chair for the international Organization for the Study of Sex Differences, is a member of several graduate student committees, and has served as a doctoral external examiner. She is also the former education director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, and is the lead of the Institute’s Women’s Cardiovascular Research initiative, CV&Me.

Her hard work and dedication to her students has been noticed. Ahmed has received numerous accolades for her supervision, including the CSM Faculty of Medicine Award for Mentorship (2018).

She explains that she learned the importance of mentorship during her own studies and is grateful to all of her supervisors, but especially the late Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine and radiology and director of physiologic research in radiology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School.

“Dr. Hollenberg took me on as a graduate student when I was five months pregnant, and he taught me so much,” says Ahmed. “I have huge gratitude for him and was so inspired by him.”

Mentorship is a way of life

For Ahmed, mentorship doesn’t end — or begin — when one receives their degree. For her, it is a way of life.

“I have learned so much from my wonderful colleagues at all stages of their careers,” she says.

Alexa Desjarlais, CV&Me program co-ordinator, has worked closely with Ahmed for the past year and has been impressed with Ahmed’s leadership abilities and her passion for helping others do their best.

“In my administrative capacity, Dr. Ahmed has fostered many opportunities that have excelled my professional career and encouraged personal growth. What truly sets Dr. Ahmed apart is her constant drive for excellence — she is always learning, leading by example, incorporating new knowledge into practice, and accepting ideas with excitement,” says Desjarlais.

“Despite her incredible knowledge and experience, she is humble, always willing to explore different concepts and ensures that she is taking as many perspectives into consideration as possible. She truly and genuinely cares about people, their journey and how she can have a positive impact with everything that she does.”