Featured Day in the Life of: Hajer, graduate student using brain imaging technology to understand neurodevelopmental disorders

Hi everyone, I’m Hajer Nakua, a second-year graduate student at the University of Toronto, Canada. My work uses brain imaging technology (such as MRI) to understand the relationship between behavioural constructs and brain circuits in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Almost all my work is conducted on very powerful computers or computing systems! 

As with any grad student, my day to day experiences can look quite different. A personal strategy of mine is to have a theme for each day (the theme is based on the type of task I will complete). For example, some days are writing days, so at least 75-80% of the workday will be spent on writing manuscripts, grants, or any admin documents. Some days may be analysis days so those days will be spend looking at numbers or computerized brains! 

I try really hard to be disciplined when it comes to ‘work’ versus ‘non work’ time. I try to be in the lab by 8:40am and leave around 4pm. Once I leave, I try not to touch the work again, unless there’s something urgent such as a very pressing deadline. Currently, I do commute to work, so I budget about 2-2.5 hours a day for that (there and back). On my commutes I like to be productive by either reading books for leisure or catching up with papers from the literature. 

My alarm goes off at 6:30, and from then to 7:20, I prepare for the day ahead. I normally prepare my lunch and breakfast the night before which leaves my morning relaxed. Normally the train I take arrives at 7:30am, but on this particular day, there were a few things which made me late so I had to take a later train (because life happens!) 


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Since I took a later train, I got to the lab around 9am. The first thing I normally do is spend a few minutes just consulting my to do list and schedule (made the day before). I also brew me tea because I’m a self- proclaimed tea-holic. Once that’s all ready, I get started! I always have my breakfast in the lab because I usually get hungry around 9:30-10am. On this particular day, I made a banana, chocolate and peanut butter smoothie (#basic) and had that as I was checking the results from the previous’ days analyses.

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This day was very analysis heavy so most of it was spent creating all the files needed to run the program of interest. This program is what can allow me to see the brain-behaviour relationships I’m interested in. By the middle of the work day, I try to get some fresh air so I don’t get bogged down from staring at a computer all day. My labmates and I have a tradition of going to Kensington Market and it’s one of my favourite times of the day!

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Although the temptation to eat all the wonderful and interesting food in Kensington Market is always high, I do try to make my lunch most days as it’s healthier and more financially responsible (especially on a graduate school stipend). I normally eat it once I get back from the walk. (Side note: now noticing that this day was a very healthy eating day which I’m proud of, but it definitely doesn’t always look like this!)

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By 4:10pm, I leave the lab and head to the train station. My commute consists of walking to the subway station, taking a quick subway, and then taking a 40 minute GO train home.

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I go to the gym 3-4 times a week and try to align them on weekends or days I work from home, but if a gym session is booked on a day I went to the lab then I normally change into my gym clothes right when I come home and head to a nearby gym. I try not to spend more than 50 minutes to make the workout efficient. Once I get home from the gym or a walk/run, I have dinner, and after that it’s Hajer or Family time. Sometimes my and family and I prepare tea and talk about our day or a topic we choose. Sometimes I have plans with friends and sometimes I opt for a stay-in evening with a book and tea in hand! By 10pm, I’ll be in bed and awaiting the next day!

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