He wanted to put himself to the test in an international setting
Rugivan Sabaratnam’s parents supported him, but they couldn’t quite understand his choice of course. Biomedical science – what was that, now? ‘Nowadays there are Tamils who are well-educated in many different subjects – and that’s really great – but in Tamil culture at that time there were actually only three professions that were altogether “accepted”: doctor, lawyer and engineer’, laughs Rugivan Sabaratnam. But biomedical science would turn out to be a good choice for him. Really good, even, and today he is at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism (OCDEM), with Professor Fredrik Karpe, working on a 3-year project and adding to his own, and the world’s, knowledge of human fat distribution
and its regulatory elements.
Professor Karpe’s group is working to understand why lower body fat, as opposed to upper body fat accumulation, is protective against type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Professor Karpe and his groups has previously identified a bone marrow-derived molecule that regulates adipogenesis specifically in the upper body (in the abdomen) but not in the lower body (in the gluteofemoral region); the aim of Rugivan Sabaratnam’s primary project is to investigate whether this specific molecule also affects local tissue, namely bone marrow fat. ‘It’s a super interesting project covering several fat depots and their regulation’, he says.
‘We perform functional genetic studies to translate gene variants associated with the fat distribution traits. We perform human in vivo studies to understand the trafficking, storage and expandability of fat in and between adipose tissues. If one could transpose the specialised features of gluteofemoral fat to other tissues, this might lead to interesting new therapeutic approaches’, says Rugivan Sabaratnam and stresses that, with increasing rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, this is an area of unmet clinical need.
"The Danish environment is perhaps very sheltered, which has its pros and cons, but I think it’s good to have to meet the rather stricter requirements we come up against here."
Always wanted to work abroad as a postdoc
Rugivan Sabaratnam himself doesn’t think his career to date is quite as impressive as I and many others do. ‘There can be a good deal of luck involved in getting to Stanford, Oxford or Yale’, he says.
Despite his modesty, though, he will go so far as to say that he very much appreciates that fact that the road to his job lay through 3 months of PhD study in 2017 with his host supervisors at Oxford, Professor Fredrik Karpe and Senior Lecturer Dr. Constantinos Christodoulides, who have been working determinedly with Rugivan ever since to enable him to work in Oxford as a postdoc.
‘I’ve always wanted to work abroad as a postdoc, first and foremost to get lots of methodological experience, and then to put myself to the test in an international setting. So, as they wanted me back, and as at the same time I was really impressed with the research, the methods and the techniques and the fantastic working environment and supervision at Oxford, it all worked out nicely’, he says.
"Professor Brage Storstein Andresen, University of Southern Denmark (SDU), taught him something that’s very important for a researcher: to be academically and methodologically strong and at the same time to concentrate on being critical of your own experiments and prepared to take criticism."
Clinic and research facilities physically close
The OCDEM in Oxford is designed so that the clinic and the research facilities are physically on top of each other: the ground floor is a clinical unit where people with diabetes and lipid disorders come for consultations. On the first floor are laboratory spaces, and on the second floor are offices for the researchers. ‘It’s a very integrated unit, with close collaboration between the clinical work and us “wet-lab researchers”, and the lessons learnt here are some of the things I’m seeing interest in at home in Denmark’, says Rugivan.
Among the world leaders
Professor Karpe and OCDEM as a whole are among the world leaders in human studies of metabolism, obesity and T2D. In particular, Professor Fredrik Karpe’s group are leaders in the field of in vivo human fat tissue metabolism and physiological functions, including deep characterisation of human fat distribution. Another remarkable and unique string to OCDEM’s bow is the establishment of the Oxford BioBank, a local population recruitment cohort set up by Professor Fredrik Karpe and containing patient characteristics (cardiovascular- and obesity-related phenotypes including biochemical and genetic biomarkers, anthropometric measurements and body composition assessed using dual energy X-ray absorptiometry) of more than 8,000 individuals.
‘With the Oxford BioBank, it is possible to recruit individuals with a given gene variant (‘recruit-by-genotype’) that we can study in vivo and then take abdominal and gluteofemoral fat biopsies and establish cell lines from them. Establishing these cell lines enables us to make functional studies, meaning that we really can have the opportunity to study the function of a specific molecule in more detail. This way, we really do go from the patient to the cells (from bed to bench). So this whole process, and the set-up in Oxford, is fascinating’, says Rugivan
Thriving in a research environment with many postdocs Rugivan has settled in well in Oxford and is thriving in a research environment with many postdocs.
‘I have my own projects, but I’m also involved in many other postdocs’ work, and that confirms my belief that open and transparent collaboration is important to all researchers and also to having a successful postdoc period’, he says.
COVID-19 has of course imposed constraints when it comes to close collaboration with colleagues, and it has also meant that the projects are proceeding more slowly. But Professor Karpe makes sure things are moving in the right direction.
Rugivan can now go into the laboratory again following a lock-down, but timeslots have to be booked and the rules have to be followed, including the one about keeping 2 metres apart, and masks must be worn when working.
Does Brexit cause him problems? Or the UK’s economic difficulties? No, not at all. He has a residence permit and work permit; if it becomes an issue, he can apply for citizenship after just 5 years. And research funding? ‘My project costs are supported by the British Heart Foundation’. So what about working conditions? The long hours with weekends included? ‘The Danish research environment is perhaps very sheltered, which has its pros and cons, but I think it’s good to have to meet the rather stricter requirements we come up against here’, he says.
Among other things, those stricter requirements mean having to be more independent and good at coming up with ideas, being creative and being capable of managing projects.
‘Having said that, though, things move a bit faster here in Oxford, so it’s all go’, he says.
What can be difficult is living under the double pressure of having to deliver for both the research centre in Oxford and for Steno Diabetes Center Odense (SDCO) back home in Odense. But he feels he is gaining highly valuable experience that he knows Steno are interested in, too.
Wants to be wiser today than he was yesterday
Rugivan Sabaratnam has one big ambition that his parents drummed into him since he was a little boy: he wants to be wiser today than he was yesterday. Rugivan learnt from his big sister that it is important in life to pursue your goals and ambitions and to help do a thorough job. He wants to contribute to the research in Oxford and at the same time to bring to the SDCO some of the unique techniques and methods that the British are further forward with than we are.
‘Kurt Højlund – professor and Head of Research at SDCO – is expecting it, and we have already made a good start through our fixed monthly meetings’, he says.
Advice to other researchers wanting to go abroad:
I wouldn’t have made it to Oxford without good mentors, says Rugivan Sabaratnam.
Rugivan Sabaratnam hopes that many more young Danish researchers will have luck on their side, get out into the world and work internationally, so he has put together a list of tips, from establishing a good network to being ambitious, critical of your own experiments and prepared to take criticism.
Rugivan Sabaratnam’s advice to researchers present and future who are dreaming of exciting job opportunities is, first of all, to be open with their supervisors and tell them about their wishes and dreams. ‘Be inspired by colleagues and supervisors. Research is teamwork, no matter whose name is first or last on an article. I wouldn’t have made it to Oxford without good mentors’, he says.
His own wish to become a researcher began during his thesis thanks to the ‘fantastic supervision’ of Professor Brage Storstein Andresen of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU). ‘It was under his supervision that I first felt research was not just dead serious, but also fascinating and fun. He taught me something that’s very important for a researcher: to be academically and methodologically strong and at the same time to concentrate on being critical of your own experiments and prepared to take criticism’, says Rugivan.
Professor Andresene´s supervision got a few thoughts going in his mind regarding his PhD. ‘I got three co-authorships from my thesis, which doesn’t just show my assiduity, but also illustrates the great supervision by Professor Andresen. I chose to go the translational research route and became a PhD student under Professor Kurt Højlund at SDU thanks to PhD fellowships from the DDA, the Region of Southern Denmark and SDU. With Professor Højlund’s fantastic supervision in metabolism, obesity and T2D, I had the opportunity to become more independent and establish my own research network. I presented my data nationally and internationally, giving several oral presentations. I also have Professor Højlund to thank for his tremendous willingness to give me the freedom to find my own areas of interest – within diabetes and obesity, of course – which enabled me to establish excellent collaborations with Associate Professors Morten Frost and Per Svenningsen at SDU.
It was also Professor Højlund who made it possible for him to go to Oxford: he established contact with Professor Karpe, as he felt that the type of research conducted by Professor Karpe was better suited to Rugivan’s profile and that a spell with Professor Karpe would also benefit Professor Højlund’s research group and OUH/SDU in the long term.
‘I must say, Professor Højlund was quite right. I am very grateful to him and the SDCO for this opportunity’.
Rugivan Sabaratnam receives his salary from Denmark – via a 3-year fellowship through SDCO – while all research costs are supported by the British Heart Foundation .
His visit is an expression of the wish to strengthen the international collaboration between Oxford and the SDCO.
MSc, PhD, Postdoc
University of Oxford
KI, Steno Diabetes Center Odense & University of Southern Denmark
Read Rugivan Sabaratnams CV here