Alibek Moldakozhayev and Albina Tskhay are a married couple from Kazakhstan, who moved to Canada to study and work at McGill University, one the world’s most prestigious universities. Both are working on their Ph.D. thesis in their respective fields: Alibek on the neurobiology of aging and Albina studies the issues of family medicine that deals with maternal and child health.
In an interview with Qazmonitor, Alibek and Albina share their journey of pursuing their doctorates at McGill University, their blog, and advice on maintaing a healthy lifestyle.
"Ph.D. is like driving a bicycle. Except for the fact that the ground is on fire, and the bicycle is on fire"
Can you share the story of how you two met?
Alibek: We met at Nazarbayev University while I was taking a social science class. We immediately noticed each other and after some time started to date. At one point, we broke up for a period, but only to understand that we needed each other. We started over again and recently celebrated our five-year wedding anniversary.
Albina: Yes, that is another reason why I am grateful to be a NU alum - there, we met each other.
How did the two of you become interested in the medical field?
Alibek: My passion for science was with me throughout my life; and during my bachelor´s, I had to make a hard decision - to go to science or to become a doctor. I decided that I may have a better impact on humanity’s well-being by developing technologies in a lab rather than interacting with people directly.
Sadly, we all experience the death of our beloved ones, and at some point I realized that the major cause of that is aging.
Albina: My story is a bit different. From early childhood, I was always on the periphery of natural and social sciences. My main questions were about how the world can be changed to become a better place.
And the answers were always double-sided because such changes require not just scientific discoveries, but the transformation of society as well.
Studying at Nazarbayev University was a precious experience; I grasped a good volume of knowledge and skills universal to both fields [medicine and social studies]: critical thinking, self-learning, quantitative methods and statistics, academic writing, and research ethics. This helped me better understand my strengths and motivations and thus become closer to finding my research focus.
Both of you study topics that in one way or another deal with the issue of aging. Did you wanted to study at McGill University from the start?
Alibek: The application process for Canadian universities requires applicants to find a lab of interest and be accepted by a lab principal investigator. My supervisor is an expert in genetics behind aging and neurodegeneration. I applied to McGill University specifically to work with him.
Albina: It’s a result of quite a long journey. While working on my bachelor’s degree, I was more into social problems and learned how many children worldwide suffer.
Then, during my master’s studies at the University of Florida and involvement in autism research, I learned more about the role of the microbiome on metabolism and immunity.
Luckily, I could find a program on Family Medicine at McGill University, which ideally combines public health and fundamental science perspectives so I can do what interests me most. So, to be precise, my topic focuses on the role of the maternal gut microbiome in child health.
What is the main difference between education in Canada and in Kazakhstan?
Alibek: The administration here always tries to find ways to make the scientist’s life easier. In Kazakhstan, layers of bureaucracy sometimes could create significant delays in progress and cause a hilarious headache for people in science.
I feel that the major problem could probably be that administrative people may feel that they rule the game, while in fact, their major role is to provide support to researchers.
We should keep in mind that science is an endless competition and that the top level is in constant growth. People here know this very well and are not stagnating, so we should work even harder to have a chance to catch up with them.
Albina: In terms of quality of education, studying at NU was on par with McGill University, which makes me proud. Sometimes, in the Ph.D. level courses, we covered topics that I knew very well from the NU undergraduate courses.
What's it like to live in Canada as a family?
Canada is a wonderful country. Our ten-month-old son Albert has lots of opportunities here: lots of educational centers, subsidized daycare, free medical insurance, clean air, good quality food, and so on, so forth.
But at the same time, our people are quite unique, especially Kazakh youth. You start realizing it after you have been away for a long time.
Sometimes, we just want to watch some Kazakh movies, or occasionally go to Uyghur restaurants (unfortunately, no Kazakh restaurants here) to eat some manty, plov, or laghman - it helps with nostalgia a little bit.
I would imagine getting a Ph.D. is not an easy task. What is it like?
Alibek: The common joke about it is that Ph.D. is like driving a bicycle. Except for the fact that the ground is on fire, and the bicycle is on fire. But pursuing a Ph.D. at McGill University we found out that is a relatively easy task, and is kind of incomparable to the level required in a real-job position at advanced places. During your studies, you learn how to do science, so mistakes and delays are fine.
I’ve received a lot of support from my supervisor, and other program staff. They even allowed me to stay in Boston for 2 years to do part of my Ph.D. project at a lab, affiliated with Harvard University and its teaching hospital - Brigham and Women´s Hospital.
Albina: I agree. I cannot say much about other places, but here at McGill, I can say that the mental health and well-being of the students are a priority. So, we never feel pressured or overwhelmed.
The academic path at McGill is divided into a number of small milestones. There is a one-year introductory period where applicants have a chance to establish a good relationship with their supervisors and take the required courses that prepare them for the actual thesis work.
Let’s talk about your blog. Why did you start an Instagram page that focuses on health care?
Alibek: At some point, we just started to realize that the Russian-speaking community has limited access to scientific knowledge about health. Even searching for information about health in Russian and English sometimes leads to completely opposite conclusions.
Unfortunately, this creates an information vacuum in which people continuously miss the opportunity to receive updated knowledge about how to live healthier, happier, and longer.
Albina: The current format is what we came up with after trials and errors. First, we tried just the website with Google ads, then Facebook and TikTok. People on Instagram want to get new information in a simplified format and that’s where, we think, our target audience resides.
What are the most harmful myths or misconceptions about health and the human body that you have encountered?
Albina: People tend to think that if our traditional food consisted of red meat, dairy, and flour, then our genome adapted to it and it is what is best for our bodies. It is not true - that is not how evolution works. If science shows that red meat and dairy are rather harmful for the average person, the same applies to us, Kazakhs.
We need to understand that culture - particularly food culture - was mainly formed as a matter of survival and not maintaining long-term health. Nomads ate what they could afford to eat.
One of the publications on your Instagram talks about how people perceive the term ‘diet’ as a one-time thing. How often do you have to disprove this belief?
Albina: I remember when we posted a video explaining that screen time for small kids should be limited to a very minimal level, we got hundreds of quite aggressive and caustic comments on TikTok.
The reason, I think, is that people don’t like to feel that they did something wrong, especially concerning their children.
Alibek: I think one of the problems here might be the word “diet” itself.
Historically, it was mostly used as an indicator of some temporary change, while in fact, it represents the eating habit of a person. Regardless of what you eat, you are on a diet. I think once this understanding comes to people, it’ll already be a huge step toward life improvement.
You also have a site where you provide paid nutrition services. Can you tell me how that business endeavor started?
Since all the regulations and procedures are easy and done online, it is quite feasible to start a business in Canada. Paying taxes for sole proprietorship does not require extra effort.
We openly share all the relevant information, and our goal is not to attract as many clients as possible but rather educate as many people as possible without imposing paid services.
When people want an personalized approach, we have to spend around four to six hours studying their case to develop an individual nutrition plan. We have to charge for the time spent.
There you provide a wide range of services categorized into ‘packages’. What is the most popular among them and why?
Albina: The most popular are anti-inflammatory and healthy microbiome packages. Since we started as experts in chronic conditions, people mostly come with existing insulin resistance, liver problems, metabolic syndrome, etc.
Even if people are overweight, by the time they refer to us, they are aware that weight is just an element of the unhealthy complex of problems.
Do you have any general tips for people who are just starting to learn about self-care?
Alibek: Remember that every habit can and will affect your health and lifespan. Sometimes, people don't even realize how nice it feels to be healthy simply because they have never been there.
The average American spends the same amount of money [on healthcare] in the last year of their life as they did in all the previous years combined.
Albina: Sure. First thing is to learn to ask yourself questions about your body and your health.
“I am eating cabbage. They say it is healthy for my body, but why? What exactly does it do to me?”, “Recently, my memory has not been good. What could have affected it? What are the factors associated with memory decline?”
Answering these questions regularly will noticeably improve your understanding (people like to call it intuition) of your body and health.
Second and the most practical one. Aim for 30 different types of fruits and vegetables per week and 30 grams of fiber per day. You will not believe how much it can change how you feel and function.
Lastly, only trust science. There will be so many friends, bloggers, and self-proclaimed healers who say they “know” what can help you. Sometimes, they sincerely believe in what they say - but just because something worked for them once or twice does not mean it will work for you.