Fellow Profile – Pratheeban Nambiyah

“If you’d asked me before I started this PhD, I would’ve had a very restrictive idea about what is acceptable research pertaining to paediatric anaesthesia. But one of the great things about being here is that it’s really opened my mind to the fact that so many aspects of science interact and fertilise each other.”

Born in Sri Lanka, Pratheeban Nambyiah spent a few years of his childhood living in South America before his family moved to East London. He finished his specialist training in anaesthetics last year, and worked as a local consultant at Great Ormond Street Hospital. “I came to do this PhD to explore some of the actions of anaesthetics that we don’t think about quite so much in day-to-day practice. Generally speaking, people think about an anaesthetic as something that puts them to sleep and keeps them asleep, and then once they’re awake everything’s back to normal- that’s how we’ve thought about it for many years. The analogy is like being on an aeroplane flight: everyone’s aware that there’s a certain level of risk while you’re taking off, while you’re in the air, and while you’re landing, but then when it’s done it’s done. But now there’s more and more evidence that anaesthetics might have longer term actions and effects that persist beyond the actual episode of the anaesthetic itself.”

Pratheeban is doing his research in Andre Brown’s Behavioural Genomics Group using the nematode worm C. elegans as a model organism to match behaviours with genetics. “I can expose these worms to anaesthetics, and then look for subtle changes in behaviour long after the obvious effect of the anaesthetic is worn off. If I can show these subtle changes of behaviour, then I can look further to see what might have changed within the functional architecture of that worm’s nervous system.” Studying an organism with a short lifespan allows Pratheeban to investigate questions he can’t answer with human studies because of confounding external factors and ethical concerns.

“There’s a definite culture shock as a doctor coming to research. It’s a very different environment, particularly basic science research. Scientists think very differently, they discuss differently, the way they ask questions is quite different.” As a clinician, Pratheeban finds his days are very busy, and hands-on. There’s little time to think about the future, and speculate on how to advance his speciality. But he finds a great sense of satisfaction from counting off the number of patients seen and operations done. “Research is different. It requires a much greater degree of motivation in many respects, because you don’t have that instant satisfaction at the end of each day. You do have a lot more time to think and plan, and then write and ask questions. But certainly if you’re new to it, it’s not so easy to use that time efficiently, and I think that’s one of the skills that scientists build up.”

Pratheeban is an unusual Chain-Florey Fellow in that he’s starting his academic career at a relatively late stage, most doctors who pursue a PhD will do it before their medical training is finished. But Pratheeban feels there is an advantage to waiting: “I know now what I want to do with my career, and I’m able to match that to my research interests. It’s great to find something else that challenges you and pushes you that bit further.”