Expert Breakfast Report for March 22nd 2023: Dr. Latika Samalia, Dept of Anatomy.

Our guest today was the very popular Dr Latika Samalia, Professional Practice Fellow in the Department, winner of several prestigious awards including the Prime Minister’s Supreme award for Tertiary Teaching Excellence, 2021, - and why she won that was abundantly clear in her highly informative talk.

Dr. Samalia first commented on her teaching activities, including First Year Health Sciences, and encompassing 2nd, 3rd and 5th year Medicine, along with Dental, Physiotherapy and Pharmacy courses. A Fijian, Latika regards herself as a Pacific Islander. Qualifying in Medicine in Fiji, she moved to New Zealand in the early 80’s. Her husband is a Urologist, and they have two children: “I tried to be a super-Mum - I was for a while!” Then she took some time off, and decided to change her lifestyle, working in Anatomy just during school hours, and is now a Senior Professional Fellow, teaching, and not required to do research.

Current Research Interests and Advice on Getting into Professional Courses

Nevertheless, she supervises two research students, one Ph.D. student investigating sleep deprivation in Pacific students, and how it affects the academic performance, while the other, an Honours student, is engaged in a sociological study on the possible reasons behind the modest difference between the academic performances of Pacific students compared to others.

Dr.Samalia hypothesised whether this may be due to the sharper change in circumstances for Pacific students when they start University, having been accustomed to close family/village life. Starting University is a substantial change for anyone in their lives, as “you are suddenly required to be an adult”. There are additional responsibilities and “You discover things about yourself. You have to manage time . . “. Latika noted that most of those present probably want to get into a professional course. “Entry into any of those will require you to work really, really hard. When you get into 3rd year, it is so much more interesting, and makes so much more sense why you had to master the material in first year and second year. “Those early years are very academic, requiring you to learn and memorise things, then in 3rd year, they begin to make sense as you apply them. For example, Anatomy is a totally new language - like learning English, where individual words learnt mean little, but putting them into sentences conveys real meaning.

Earlier Career

Though now teaching, Latika told us she had also loved practising Obstetrics and Gynaecology, going on to describe a time when she had been teaching for a while and found herself drawn to a particular student for some inexplicable reason, and teased him a bit for being somewhat cheeky. She was invited to join one of his classmates celebratory dinner with family. In the same restaurant the ‘cheeky student was also having a family meal’ and Latika felt sure she knew a lady at their table. When she went over to say ‘Hello’, it turned out that Latika had delivered this same student when he was born. “So I delivered him, and then I taught him - and that made me feel really old!”

Asked what led her to study Medicine Dr. Samalia noted that, while both her parents were teachers, a friend of her father’s was a GP in a rural area where her father was a headmaster. Her dad’s friend would visit for meals and talk about his day, and his stories interested Latika from an early age. Science was a major interest at school, then at 12 years old she went to Boarding School, a little different to what one might expect. Roused at 6 am each morning, “We all had duties. At 6.30 in the morning we would scrub drains, pull weeds, - but Hey, that made me strong!” The main problem was that this school did not teach Physics which Latika needed for entry to Medical School. Her parents arranged a change in schools, but with no previous Physics experience, the start was difficult.

However, with the help of her Physics teacher “a tall Englishman with skinny legs - but he was so good at teaching Physics.” Under his guidance, she got enough marks to get entry into medical school.

Entry to Medical School there involved interviews with the inevitable question ‘Why do you want to do Medicine?’ - “and you have to really think about that. Don’t say what one of my students did.” He was not happy that he didn’t get into Medicine the first time round, and did a B.Sc. and applied again. His reason for applying, so he said to a fellow student, was to make the lives of the academics Hell. “And he tried. He really tried but we managed to stay above him regardless of his challenges.”

Latika had lost touch with the man who had inspired her to go into Medicine, then just 3 years ago a friend of hers was treated by a consultant in Australia with his same name, who turned out to be his son, and through this contact, she was able to communicate again with the man who inspired her. “It was so sweet. He only just passed away, in December last year.” But not before they had exchanged news, and she had made him aware that it was through him that she had gone into Medicine. This interchange had clearly been very pleasing to both Latika and her mentor.

Future Research Areas

In answer to a question about areas of research in Medicine likely to grow in the future, Dr. Samalia said there are ‘heaps’, noting that those studying Medicine could take a year doing a B.Med.Sci. giving them an introduction into research via a project, and also mentioning cancer research because it is so common in the New Zealand population, perhaps due to it being diagnosed more. “I wouldn’t say think about what field interests you and approach the academic who is that field.”

Australia and New Zealand

Dr. Samalia asked one of the members present to talk about what he was doing, and he explained he was aiming at becoming a Clinical Psychologist, whereupon she commented on the increasing need for such people able to assist with mental health, with problems increasing among all age groups. She pressed him to stay in New Zealand after qualifying, and several people then commented on the desirability of living in New Zealand compared to Australia - which was a little unfortunate, as one of the members who was present is from Australia! (See note 1 below).

You Only Live Once . . You are Not Alone, Some Excellent Study Advice

Latika talked about members current aims possibly changing as they went through University. “That’s fine. Let it change. What you do in your study is what you love. If you love something, you will excel in it. Because you are doing Health Sciences, you must make this your hardest working year. The hardest year is the first year, and then it becomes fun!” She went on to press people to attend lectures, noting the important social aspect of that action, and that during lock-down fewer friends had been made because students were not seeing people at lectures. Asking each other questions to and from lectures and labs., such as “What did you enjoy there?” - because they may have picked up something that you didn’t. Discussion is really, really important. Work hard and play hard as well.” Aim at concentrating for 20 minutes at a time, then taking a small break. Talk to someone or listen to a little music.” Attend tutorials. If you are not sure what the lecturer said, go and ask - and if they are in a hurry, ask if you can send them an e-mail. “You have to push. If you are struggling, if you are sad, talk to a friend. Don’t sit alone, seek help. You are not alone.”

Later in her talk, Latika described instances of the many people she has helped in this way, they going on to succeed. Indeed, one of them is not only now practising Medicine, but in addition has an Honours in Biomedical Sciences and a Ph.D., and is also engaged in research and clinical work now.

Post-Graduate Entrants, and What Happens if You Don't Get into Your Course of Choice

Asked about what benefits there might be for post-graduates entering medicine, Dr. Samalia noted that they seem much more relaxed because of their previous experience as students, manage the work better, and are also highly motivated. For example they are not on the course because of pressure from family, but because they really want to do it. Even if a student, whatever the background, does not get into Medicine, it is not the end of the world. There are many scientists who contribute to medical knowledge through research, and there are other fields such as laboratory technology or radiation therapy - where there is a shortage currently. “It is your one life, make sure you enjoy it.” Latika’s own father did not want her to do medicine, believing that girls should not embark on a hard career. He registered for a Psychology degree himself when she started at University, and subsequently invited some staff to their home for dinner. As one was leaving, he turned to Latika’s father and said, “You don’t need to worry about her, she’ll be fine!” And clearly he had been evaluating her during the dinner, at the instigation of her father. “Then”, I said, “I’ll show you! I’ll work hard and do Medicine. And he was very proud of me later.”

Safer Embalming Fluid for Cadaver Dissection

Answering a question on her own research activities in the past, Latika told us about studying embalming fluids that were safer to use than the 10% formalin which was commonly used in the past. In this work, sections of tissues were taken from various embalming fluids, then microscopically inspected to check preservation of the structure. The chosen fluid is now used for class dissection material, and is much safer than the old formaldehyde based fluid - though it still does contain a very small concentration of formaldehyde.

Reproduction and Alcohol Intake - Look After Yourselves

Latika commented that she thought the lecture on Reproductive system should really be the first lecture in Health Sciences! “Be safe!’ she said, “You go out to parties, look after yourself, look after your friends. Make a pact you will look after each other. Alcohol is not good for your brain.

Did you know that?  A little bit is ok - but if you haven’t started, don’t start.” (Ref.1 below)

A social drinker herself in the past, Latika has recently given up alcohol completely to conserve her liver as she gets older. “I don’t miss it. It’s good - I might last longer!"

 An Obstetrics Story

Asked if she missed clinical practice, Dr. Samalia told us that she had loved that aspect of her career, but also loves teaching. “I feel I am young because of the students.” Not only that, but having taught medical students for 30 years, many are consultants now. If ever she goes into the hospital even just to visit someone, everyone asks her if she is alright, and is very solicitous, she told us, with that characteristic smile of hers.

Latika went on to tell us of a time she and her husband attended a conference in Fiji. As was usual at conferences, drug/pharmaceutical companies had free samples of their medicines on their displays, and he collected a small plastic bagful of them.

Latika has a friend in Fiji who gave her some frozen tropical fish in an ‘Eski’. These had to be declared to customs on their return to New Zealand, and one of the two Customs men checked the case Latika pointed out, but unfortunately it also had the sample of medicines, whereupon the Customs man lifted up the bag of medicinal samples and said. “What are these?” “Oh, they’re drugs!” answered Latika, then suddenly realising what she had said, hastily went on to explain that they were doctors, and the ‘drugs’ were medicinal samples. The Officer picked up her declaration card, saw her name there, and said: “Oh, Dr. Latika, how are you? Do you know, you delivered my baby!” He went on to describe his daughter now, what she was doing and so on. He then turned to his fellow Customs Office and said, “Close the bag. I know her!” And all was well and with this story the meeting came to an end!!

Dr. Latika Samaria being presented with the Prime Minister's Supreme Award for Tertiary Teaching — Image by: John Cross

Dr Latika Samalia was presented with the korowai Rauaroha, placed on her shoulders by Associate Professor Karyn Paringatai, to formally acknowledge the awarding of the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award of the 2021 Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards.

Note 1: Though I have never lived in Australia, I have known several Australians in both England and New Zealand, and have liked and admired them all without exception! - [Ed.]

Ref 1:

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Posted: Tuesday March 28, 2023