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Professor Samaranayake: The medical education in Armenia is equal to any other Western country

Professor Samaranayake: The medical education in Armenia is equal to any other Western country

Professor Lakshman Samaranayake, Honorary Doctor of YSMU, well-known specialist in the field of dentistry, world-famous microbiologist, Professor Emeritus and Past Dean of Dentistry, University of Hong Kong; clinical academician, was in Armenia for the first time at the beginning of May this year. He participated in the first Armenian-Italian international conference organized by the Yerevan State Medical University named after Mkhitar Heratsi, the Association of Dentists of Armenia and the Association of Dentists of Italy. According to his conviction, medical and dental education in Armenia is equal to education in any other Western country. The Sri Lankan specialist is also deeply impressed by the rich historical heritage and attractions of our country.

We spoke with the Professor about the advantages and challenges offered by the medical profession, his career path, unfulfilled dreams, as well as the prospects of cooperation with the Medical University. 

– Professor, let us start with your decision to become a doctor and a clinical microbiologist. How did it happen? Was that your dream?’

– My every visit to a doctor when I was young inspired me to follow that profession. We had a very kind family doctor in Sri Lanka, my home country, and he followed my education pathway closely advising me to go into the profession. His son was a dentist, and I was inspired by him too. However, once I entered the university, a second-year subject – microbiology which educates us on diseases caused by bacteria, fungi and viruses, truly fascinated me. I was keen to find out how these tiny organisms can kill people, and that became a lifelong obsession of mine.

– What kind of challenges can you mention in the medical profession?

– Medical profession used to be an elite profession. However, we have several challenges depending on the jurisdictions we are working. For example, there are too many doctors in some countries whilst in the developing countries there are too few. Each of this has its own set of challenges. Also, patients are becoming more and more litigious (i.e. taking the doctors to court) now and hence the doctors have to cover themselves for issues related to negligence. The outcome of this is that the doctors prescribe too many tests and too many drugs that are probably unnecessary, driving the cost of medical care both for the patient and the government. In addition, prescribing too many drugs, mainly antibiotics, unnecessarily leads to the development of drug-resistance organisms, which is an impending threat to all mankind. These are a few contemporary issues the medical profession is grappling with.

– What privileges do you enjoy being a Professor in medical field, especially in microbiology?

– There are no specific privileges for doctors and microbiologists, but I would like to say is that the society still regards doctors or microbiologists as educated professionals that are honourable and respectable. So, this is really nice.

– Please, tell a little bit about your career ladder. Was it easy?

– I began my career ladder as a general practice dentist in Sri Lanka although I desperately wanted to be a microbiologist/researcher and an academic. So, 3 years after graduation I had an opportunity to join a University Medical School in Sri Lanka as an assistant lecturer. From there I went on to specialise at the University of Glasgow in UK as a microbiologist where I became a clinical academic, and had the opportunity to train in a world-famous laboratory.

Afterwards I practiced in the National Health Service in UK for three years as a consultant microbiologist (and not as a dentist). From there I moved to the University of Hong Kong where I have spent the last 30 years as a Professor and then the Dean of the Faculty (10 years). Subsequently I worked in Australia and UAE as a Dean before returning to Hong Kong where I now work as a Professor Emeritus.

As for the challenges in the career ladder, I must mention that being an Asian expatriate in a foreign country was not a rosy path, but my perseverance paid off. I think I found my niche in Hong Kong where everyone respects hard work, and I could climb to the top position in the Faculty as the Dean of Dentistry, without any prejudice or discrimination.  The motto here is that one should choose a profession or a path you are passionate about, and this will rarely go wrong despite any obstacles!

– Who inspired or still inspires you on this path?

– During my four-decade journey as an academic I met so many wonderful colleagues and professors who were very supportive of my work, and I too emulated their life path to be successful. I am always inspired by hard working, dedicated professionals with integrity and empathy. I think the latter two characteristics are critical to be a leader, namely `putting yourself in other people’s shoes`, and, of course, honesty without prejudice.

– Could you remember events that became a turning point in your professional life?

– One of the major turning points in my career was the opportunity I had to pursue microbiology as a career choice despite being a dentist. In 1970s there were not many such opportunities, and at the University of Glasgow Dental Hospital there was one position that was vacant, as generally speaking, dentists are not interested in microbiology. I applied for the position from Sri Lanka and they selected me as a Registrar in Oral Microbiology to work in the Greater Glasgow Health Board, Scotland.

The second turning point was my selection to be a Dean of the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Dentistry, despite the enormous international competition for the position. I am fortunate that the leadership of the University chose me for the position despite being non-Chinese. Eventually, I together with my team created a World class school which became the best dental school in the world (from 2014 till 2017), and today it is ranked number 3 according to QS World University Rankings.

– Do you have dreams that haven’t been realized yet?

– My dream is to give back to the community. I received free education in Sri Lanka and reached the highest levels of my career due to this basic world-class education. Hence, I am now giving back to the University and I have created a number of scholarships and endowments at my alma mater. Additionally, I always do free workshops, seminars and provide lectures to both undergraduates and postgraduates in many countries, including Sri Lanka. My mission is unaccomplished until I give more of my knowledge and expertise not only to Sri Lanka but of course to educate people anywhere in the World, irrespective of the country.

– Please, tell a little bit about your family.

– My spouse, Hemamali who used to work with me as a Research Assistant Professor, also in the field of microbiology, at the University of Hong Kong is now retired. As both of us worked in the same field of microbiology our work synergised and we have published many research papers together. And I have a son and a daughter. We all live in Hong Kong but we visit Sri Lanka at least twice a year, where we have a home in the hill country near the historic world heritage city of Kandy.

– Do you manage to relax? Could you mention your hobbies?

– Yes, of course, I love listening to soft music and jazz. Until very recently I was an ardent tennis player although I infrequently play now. But I try to go to the gym every day to walk 10,000 steps.

– Let’s talk about Armenia. How would you describe the sphere of medicine in Armenia, as well as the level of cooperation with YSMU? 

– I think the medical and dental education in Armenia is of equal standing to any other country in the West. During my short visit to YSMU, I inspected the facilities in the Dental School, and they appear to be world class and second to none. Hence, Armenians should be proud of YSMU which has a wonderful history. Also, it has produced virtually thousands of doctors and dentists currently working in Armenia, as well as in different parts of the World at various high ranks.

– What did impress you in our country most?

– Two things impressed me most: the awesome history and the Armenian people. It is difficult to believe that you have gone through a genocide decade ago but survived it and flourished thereafter. The infrastructure of the University and the city are world beating, and I was particularly impressed by the city centre with beautiful fountains and heritage buildings.

Above all the Armenian people are truly striking for their warmth and kindness, unlike many other Europeans. All Armenians I came across, without any exception, during my short stay were very kind, helpful, friendly and warm. Their élan vital was awesome and striking! 

– Are you planning to visit Armenia in the future?

– Yes, of course, I will visit Armenia again with my family. You have so much natural beauty and history to offer. I like to see them all if possible! 

– As an experienced Professor, what advice would you give to your future colleagues?

– As I said above, a medical professional should have three important life qualities: empathy, integrity and kindness. Empathy is to be able to put oneself in the position of the patient (i.e. to be in patient`s shoes as it were) and to see his/her perspective. If you can do this you, will definitely succeed. The other qualities such as kindness and integrity actually accompany the element of empathy. 

– Would you like to add something?

– Yes, I would like to add my heartfelt thanks and gratitude for the rare honour of Honorary Doctorate that was bestowed upon me by YSMU. This was a memorable event for me, and I need to express my gratitude to Rector, Professor Armen Muradyan, and the Dean of the Faculty of Dentistry, Professor Lazar Yessayan.

I thoroughly enjoyed the four days I spent in Yerevan with a packed social program, sightseeing and events. To conclude, I have so many, indelible fond memories of Armenia, its people and awesome colleagues in YSMU, I shall be back!

Author: Tatevik Ghazaryan