Key takeaways

  • Youstina Labib, a microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student with a minor in global health, conducts research at the UCLA Cardiac Arrhythmia Center’s Ajijola Lab.
  • Labib’s upbringing included the support and closeness of a traditional family, but with a worldview that went far beyond.
  • She plans to become a physician-scientist with an emphasis in cardiology, a field dominated by men.

For Youstina Labib, cardiology hits close to home. She was just 5 when her father, Raouf, underwent his first major cardiac surgery. It was to have a lasting effect on the Southern California native, who became a vital part of her dad’s care team for serious and ongoing health issues while still in elementary school.

“Maybe some days, instead of playing sports or going to some after-school activity, I would go to the hospital to see my dad,” she remembers. “I spoke Arabic at home and got into a preschool that was primarily for Latinx communities. Many of those students were Spanish speakers, and I was able to learn English right along with them.”

Her dual-language skills made Labib a translator while still in elementary school. She began to understand medical terms and prescription names far earlier than most kids.

The Labib family emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s after leaving Egypt. There, her grandfather was a renowned journalist while her mother Hanaa had been building the foundations of a career in medicine. As practicing Coptic Orthodox Christians, life in Egypt was at times difficult.

“It’s a beautiful and culturally rich identity, but it does come with some challenges,” Labib said. “Coptic Orthodox Christians are only representing about 10% of the population in Egypt, and being a minority, we faced discrimination as well as religious persecution.”

The United States seemed to offer the family the educational opportunities and security they were hoping for. Just a few years after they resettled in Lakewood, her father’s health shifted their priorities. It also created growth opportunities, though at considerable sacrifice.

“In our Arab culture, it's very common for a man to be in primary power,” Labib said. “But my mother had to take an untraditional role in being the primary provider. That taught me and my sisters that a woman can do what she wants and needs to. My mom was already defying the odds of tradition in our household.”

UCLA student Youstina Labib (top right) with her family.
Youstina Labib
UCLA student Youstina Labib (top right) with her sisters, Rita (left) and Sandra (right), mother Hanaa and father Raouf.

That maternal role model helped Labib and her siblings aim high. Her eldest sister, Sandra, is a civil engineer, while her other sister, Rita, is a photographer.

UCLA offered a pre-med track and research environment she was looking for, close to her family. Her current research is focused on sympathetic innervation in pulmonary fibrosis, which helps her understand how the nervous system responds to lung injury.

She plans to take a gap year before pursuing medical school and a career as a physician-scientist.

“Being a physician-scientist will allow me to see patients in a clinical setting and actively conduct research so I can translate that research to the bedside,” she said.

With one hand in research and the other in patient care, Labib sees opportunities to add a much-needed female presence to the field of cardiology.

“Cardiology is very much dominated by men,” Labib said. “So it's really important to me to see women, and especially women of color, in these fields that I can look up to, and I hope to be one of them one day so that others can look up to me as well, as a woman of color in this field.”

Commencement will bring her dad to UCLA for the first time, and while her academic and medical career could put physical distance between Youstina and her family, the closeness so vital to her father’s health is woven into her culture.

“Arab heritage is rooted in resilience,” she said. “I often find myself embracing my identity, applying those values that I take from our heritage and translating it in many ways.”