Super student soars to new heights

29 Aug 2018
29 Aug 2018

Richard Burman, a graduate at UCT , who has a MBChB, Honours and MSc with distinction to his name, all of which was achieved in just seven short years,  has recently been awarded a fellowship at Oxford.

We took some time to catch up with Richard to find out how his journey started and what his future holds.

Q:  Where did your love for the medical sciences begin? When did you start studying at UCT?(in what programme). What made you decide to do the other degrees simultaneously, and when did you graduate?

Richard: My interest in medicine and medical science started during my high school biology classes.  It was there that I became curious about the human brain, how it worked and how it was affected in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways by different diseases.  This, plus a secret desire to emulate Dr ‘McDreamy’, inspired me to apply for medicine.  

I started the MBChB programme in 2011. Inspired by the idea of pursuing science alongside my medical degree, I signed up for the intercalated BMedSci(Hons) / MBChB programme.  I had always found myself getting lost in my textbook trying to learn the finer details of health and disease, so for me this programme was an opportunity to explore this further.   

In 2014 I took a hiatus from my medical studies to complete my Honours in Neuroscience.  I spent the year working in Dr Joseph Raimondo’s up-and-coming cellular electrophysiology lab learning about how our brain electrically processes information and how this goes wrong in conditions like epilepsy.  This really was the most magical year and I didn’t want it to end. Thankfully, Matthew Amoni had similar sentiments the year before, and had pioneered the way of going back into the MBChB programme whilst continuing his basic science research by concurrently completing a MSc(Med).   There were of course hoops to jump through matched by even more hesitation by staff, but Matt had shown it was possible to do and so I was inspired to follow suit.

I then re-entered the MBChB programme in 2015, starting the 4th year whilst also registering for a MSc(Med).  After three incredibly challenging but infinitely rewarding years, I submitted my MSc(Med) in November 2017 followed by graduating with MBChB that December. I got my results for the MSc(Med) in January 2018 and was able to graduate at the April ceremony which was quite special.
Q: You have achieved so much in such a short space of time: What motivates you?

Richard: My biggest motivation is trying to make some form a contribution towards extending our knowledge about how the brain works.  I am also inspired by the idea of pursuing a career as a clinician-scientist who is able to translate knowledge from the lab to the clinic and vice versa.

Q: What is the average time a student can expect to complete all 3 of the degrees?

Richard: Well, this depends. To finish the MBChB/BMedSci (Hons) intercalated programme takes seven years. The time to finish the MSc(Med) depends really on you and your project.  To be honest, the time isn’t as important as enjoying the journey and producing good work.   

Q: What made it possible to do so many degrees in such a short space of time? Any advice for people who would like to take a similar approach?

Richard: Well firstly, none of what I have been able to do would have been possible without the belief from some very generous funders.  Most notably, UCT, Boehringer Ingelheim, the MRC, the National Research Foundation, the Levenstein Trust and especially the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. There have also been really incredible individuals without which I would never have gotten to this point.  Most particularly Professor Arieh Katz and Professor Bongani Mayosi for being the masterminds behind the programme.  Then to all those who have mentored me throughout my seven years at UCT, including Professor Graham Fieggen (Neurosurgery), Professor Jo Wilmshurst (Paedaitric Neurology), Professor Peter Beighton (Human Genetics), Emeritus Professor Jenny Thomas (Paediatric Anaesthesiology), all the course and year convenors of the MBChB programme (who were exceptionally accommodating), and my supervisor, Dr Joseph Raimondo (Cell Biology), whose generosity and patience are never-ending and whose love for science is absolutely infectious.   Last but certainly not least, my family who have been wonderful support throughout.   

As for advice to others, I think it is best not to focus on the degrees per say, but rather the relevance of what you are doing.  For me, registering for the MSc wasn’t about getting another degree, but rather allowing me to continue doing basic research while completing my medical studies. It is important  not to do things because you are drawn to the pseudo-prestige of looking ‘impressive’, but rather to do them because it makes sense for the type of person you are aspiring to be.   

Q: What have been some of the challenges and highlights you have come across? Do you regret anything?

Richard: The unforgiving nature of cellular neuroscience research means it is often unpredictable with a lot of failure before any glimmer of useful data.  It is quite cruel.  That said, when things do work it is really quite magical to be able to study the living brain in such exquisite detail.   
I don’t believe in regrets because we learn from everything we do.  Sure, I have made mistakes, the most crippling of which has been taking on way too much (a problem I still have) and not taking enough time to ‘smell the roses’.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved the path I took, but I do realise that I put myself under a lot of pressure, probably too much. I didn’t really get all that much sleep for three years which at times, made me less than delightful to be around.  

As for highlights, these completely outweigh the lack of sleep.  To mention a few, I had some fantastic memories running around the lab with Matt Amoni late on Friday nights, traveling the world to present my research and something really special; being able to work with the neurosurgeons to make recordings from cells taken from a living human brain. My biggest highlight has been able to find something I am passionate about and inspired to keeping working at.     
Q: What emotions were you feeling when you found out you were awarded a fellowship at Oxford? What are you studying there? When will you complete it?

Richard: In short, I am beyond excited.  I have been very lucky to receive a few funding offers, but will ultimately be pursuing my studies in Oxford as a Levehulme Mandela Rhodes Scholar.  This prestigious scholarship is in its second year and linked to the Mandela Rhodes Foundation (MRF) who I have received a scholarship from for my Masters.  Being a part of the MRF community has been a truly wonderful experience and I am excited to be a part of growing its new scholarship programme with the Levehulme Trust.  

At Oxford I will join the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences where I will be studying a Doctorate in Philosophy (DPhil) under Professor Arjune Sen and Professor Colin Akerman.  My research will focus on investigating the mechanisms that lead to prolonged seizures in the brain and will combine advanced basic and clinical neuroscience techniques.  I am hoping to finish the DPhil in three years, but this is research so you are really at the mercy of how your data develops.  For me the most important thing is not getting it done as fast as I can, but rather doing the best research that I can.   

Q: What are your goals for the next 5 years?

Richard: The main focus is working towards my overall goal of being an academic epileptologist who is able to do impactful translational research that is relevant to and in Africa (quite a mouthful).  As for my immediate career goals (a favoured question), I want to enjoy the DPhil experience and get as much out of it as I can.  Thereafter, I am hoping to transition back into clinical medicine by pursuing specialist training.  I really enjoy working with children so I do hope to find myself in some form of paediatric-focused speciality, but you can’t script your trajectory so I am just going to carry on and enjoy the journey.