PhD candidate gets the jump on lung research

Emily Leighton // Special to Western News

Khadija Sheikh, a Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry PhD candidate, is developing a new method to optimize MRI and complete a lung scan within a reasonable breath hold for patients.

From 30 metres to 21 kilometres. From 90 seconds to more than two hours. These numbers are currently top-of-mind for Khadija Sheikh, a Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry PhD candidate.

A former varsity track and field athlete at the University of Windsor, she is a master at triple jump and excels at running the 30 quick metres required to make a splash in the sand. But this month, she will go a much farther distance for her first half-marathon – certainly more than a hop, skip and a jump from start to finish, with no soft landing waiting at the finish line.

“I think this will be my first and last half-marathon,” she said with a laugh.

This eagerness to take on new challenges and push her limits is a trait that follows Sheikh to the lab, where she works on novel lung imaging methods – not an easy task, according to the budding researcher.

“I’d argue the lung is one of the most difficult parts of the body to image,” she explained. “The heart gets in the way, and there is always movement caused by people breathing.”

Typically, CT imaging is used to image the lung. But the lack of functional information, paired with the cumulative radiation exposure of CT scanners, opens the door to the possibilities of MRI.

Under supervisor Grace Parraga, a Medical Biophysics professor, cross-appointed to Medical Imaging and Oncology, Sheikh’s research focuses on investigating these opportunities. She is developing a new method to optimize MRI and complete a lung scan within a reasonable breath hold for patients.

This has led to the development of a ‘push-button’ sequence, an automated scan process more accessible outside the research environment. It’s an idea that has widespread appeal and potential. “This is a sequence you could implement on a typical hospital scanner,” Sheikh said. “It’s more efficient and realistic for health centres.”

Building on her optimized MRI method, Sheikh has a new project in the works. She will be looking at ex-preterm adults – people born at less than 29 weeks old who live with impaired lung function.

She is initiating this collaborative study with Montreal’s Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Sainte-Justine, the largest mother-and-child centre in Canada. Her goal is to have the first group of patients ready to begin in January.

Part of the Commission on the Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs Clinical Program at Schulich, Sheikh was first attracted to the school by the imaging research with which she is now involved.

Working at the Robarts Research Institute continues to be her motivating factor both professionally and personally.

“Our team is fantastic and the environment is so supportive and friendly,” she said. “Sometimes we’ll be working until 2 a.m., which sounds awful, but is actually a lot of fun.”

Sheikh also values being able to work with people who will benefit from her results in the lab.
“The patients keep me going; they’re so interesting to talk to,” she said. “And they’re just so grateful and happy to be at Robarts. Working with them really brightens my day.”