Halil Beqaj Is Running Marathons While Training To Be a Doctor

Beqaj will graduate this spring with both a medical degree and a master’s in biomedical sciences.

January 09, 2024

Notebook is a Columbia News series that highlights just some of the many fascinating students who study at our University. 

When Halil Beqaj graduates this spring, he won’t just have his Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree from Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons. He’ll also have a Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences, a degree that brought his total time at Columbia from four (the standard for medical doctors-in-training) up to five years. When he isn’t studying, Beqaj can be found training for the marathon and volunteering for the Columbia Human Rights Initiative Asylum Clinic. Columbia News caught up with Beqaj to discuss what drew him to his personal and professional pursuits, and how he went semi-viral for his encounter with a duck at the New York City marathon.

When did you first know you wanted to be a medical doctor, and what made you pick Columbia as a place to study?

My father helped me discover my passion for science at the earliest birthday I can remember. As the nerdy PhD pathologist that he is, he got me a microscope for my fifth birthday. I very vividly remember him poking himself in our kitchen and placing a few drops of his blood on a slide under the microscope. Bewildered, I looked through the lens to find what my father excitedly described as “millions and millions of blood cells!” It was in that moment that I realized that there was so much that I couldn’t see that explained the world around me.

It was around the age of 12, while my family and I visited our home village in Montenegro, when a close relative died suddenly from a complication during a procedure that was supposed to be relatively routine that I discovered a passion for medicine. Seeing how this event, and how other consequences of the healthcare disparity in the region impacted my family, I developed a deep sense of wanting to make sure nobody else had to experience what my family had—in addition to needing to understand the underlying mechanisms that caused such mortality and morbidity, from both physiologic and health system levels.

One main reason I came to Columbia is the diversity, both in the class selected each year and in the patient population. I have been incredibly lucky to learn from such bright peers who have such a wide variety of interests, passions, and backgrounds! I am not sure how the medical school’s admissions team does it, but the mix of people they select seems to foster a culture of camaraderie, making the learning environment extremely collaborative. From a patient perspective, I feel extremely lucky to get to learn in one of the most diverse cities in the world (I never thought I would have the opportunity to directly treat fellow Albanians). In addition, there are some diseases that I was certain I would only see in textbooks; yet, the reality I have been so fortunate to experience is that people come from all over the world for the rarest of diseases to be treated by the experts here at Columbia.

Why did you want an additional degree, beyond an MD?

I sought out this fifth year program in Biomedical Sciences in order to be dedicated to full time research, supplemented by additional coursework aimed to develop and refine research skills and to expand my exposure to cutting-edge research and the techniques utilized to achieve it, to begin building a foundation for a career in academic medicine. Not to mention, it provided an incredible opportunity for me to dive into an innovative project aimed at addressing some of the current limitations of the field I am passionate about, cardiothoracic surgery.

You're involved with the work of the Columbia Human Rights Initiative Asylum Clinic. What drew you to that Clinic?

Coming from a family that has benefited firsthand from refugee/asylum systems set up both here and abroad, having the opportunity to pay forward what others have done for my family was a no brainer! (My family belongs to the small ethnic Albanian minority population in Montenegro.) In addition to being a tremendous privilege to simply hear the stories of some of the most vulnerable people all across the world and the extreme adversities they have faced, the clinic allowed me to play a role in significantly increasing chances of asylum seekers successfully attaining asylum! These experiences, in addition to the work I and other members of the clinic board performed, have been some of the most meaningful and transformative of my time here in medical school.

Any suggestions for incoming students on how best to navigate the city?

I think my first suggestion is to familiarize yourself with the subway system. Once I “mastered it” (after many times of taking the wrong line or heading in the wrong direction), I started to feel like I belonged in the city! The subway system really makes a ginormous city with so much to offer feel like it’s all right at your fingertips. This allowed me to really explore food, coffee shops, and libraries.

One of my favorite things about the city is the variety and abundance of authentic cuisines. The Albanian food in the city is almost as good as my mother’s cooking! My favorite restaurant is Cka Ka Çëllu. Originally in the Bronx, it was named to The New York Times’ top 10 restaurants of 2019. They now have a midtown location as well. It is where I have taken so many friends of mine to try Albanian food for the first time. If you go to the Bronx location and want to swing by for my absolute favorite dish, Burek, a traditional pastry, I recommend Tony & Tina’s Pizzeria. I strongly recommend either the meat or cheese burek. Arthur Avenue in the Bronx has a lot of Albanian restaurants!

I gather that you ran the New York City Marathon in November, and found a duck en route? Can you tell us the story?

As I was running through Brooklyn (are we surprised this happened in Brooklyn?), I noticed runners ahead of me abruptly altering their trajectory while looking down. Lo and behold, there was a duck running along with all the human runners! This incident only added to all the energy, and humor, the New Yorkers who come out to support the event bring. A few hours later, my phone started blowing up with messages from friends containing the link to a well-known NYC Instagram page sharing a post with a clip of me running (and briefly throwing a pose) next to the duck! Not at all what I expected for the day.