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  • Zainab (left) at the AKU Hospital in Karachi, where - with support from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) - a major expansion is helping improve access to healthcare for some of Pakistan’s poorest citizens.
Zainab Samad: Reaching new heights in national healthcare

When Zainab Samad was 13 or 14, she accompanied her mother to see a physician at Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. The doctor her mother consulted for treatment was a woman, a heart surgeon. “I was struck by her ability,” Zainab says now of that doctor. When Zainab applied to medical schools, she applied to AKU.

“I am the oldest of five siblings. Two others also went to AKU and did better than I did. Both became top cardiologists,” she says modestly. “My own mentors start with my mother, who pursued a career and raised five children, and returned to her career later.”

Zainab’s mother was herself a gynecologist. So from an early age, Zainab could picture herself becoming a doctor. But a leading role at a university was a leap beyond her imagination.

Still, in 2018, Dr. Zainab Samad, after 16 years at Duke University, returned to Karachi to lead the Medicine Department at AKU. She is the youngest person ever to hold that position, and the first woman.

Growing up, she did not see people like her in that role. “I saw leaders as people who were in administration. Now that I am in this role, I see it as a chance to make changes that are aligned with a certain vision. It is about building consensus around a mission and a vision,” she says. “Leadership means bringing stakeholders together and empowering and uplifting others."

Zainab’s journey to new heights was long, but she hopes that it will inspire other women to follow in her trail.

“I hope it changes the perception of a leader as someone you could be one day, someone who has your back,” she says of her new role. AKU has had female chairs in other departments, including Obstetrics-Gynecology and Anesthesia. “I hope it means we will have more.”

Aga Khan University became the leading healthcare institution in Pakistan through excellence in teaching and research. Now it influences healthcare practice and policy across the country. With its expansion, AKU Hospital will continue to develop skills of healthcare professionals like Zainab to deliver world-class care.

AKU alumni are in leadership roles in schools, hospitals, clinics, and more. “Having women in prominent roles is important. The change is starting to trickle up. In medicine, we in our department are finding multiple ways we can mentor women.”

Those new ways include an initiative for mentoring women through the phases of their careers, providing leadership and communication skills. “We start small and want to scale up,” says Dr. Samad.

This article was first published on the Aga Khan Foundation USA website.