Museum of Natural History & Pitt Rivers Museum

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, not to be confused with the Natural History Museum in London, first opened its doors in 1860 and has delighted nerds (like me) ever since. Even before it was opened, it had hosted what subsequently became known as the Great Debate, in which Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, matched wits with Thomas Huxley on the topic of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

These days, the approach from the lawn is marred somewhat by barriers erected due to ongoing construction work at the site of Reuben College, the latest addition to this collegiate university. However, one can still see some Megalosaurus footprints on the front lawn, made from casts of fossilised prints discovered at Ardley Quarry, Oxfordshire in 1997.

This museum is probably my second favourite place in the city (after Blackwell’s). Pre-pandemic, I’d sometimes drop by for a short while to take a look at the dinosaurs, have a light lunch, and read at the cafe upstairs.

Like I said, I’m a nerd.

These photos were taken recently when I brought my family along for a visit. We also made our way into the adjacent Pitt Rivers Museum, although the kids were understandably less excited about all the stuff there compared to the dinosaurs skeletons found next door.

A bit about the photos themselves…

After importing them into the Photos app on my MacBook Pro, I decided to be lazy and simply applied the ‘Vivid Warm’ filter instead of making individual edits. I’m still getting used to this new workflow, having used Adobe Lightroom for quite a while, but so far so good.

Enjoy the pictures!

Dua Dekad

The following article first appeared on Berita MCOBA, the official publication of the Malay College Old Boys Association (MCOBA), on 16 June 2021. I’m re-posting it here for my own records.

2021 was supposed to be the year we, the Class of 2001, marked our twentieth year since leaving MCKK. So, like any self-respecting organisation, we drew up our to-do list:

  • Vanity/commemoration project chosen? Yes!
  • T-Shirt designs discussed on WhatsApp? Of course.
  • Appropriate hashtag selected for maximum social media impact? #DuaDekad…BOOM!
  • Money raised to finance all the above? Guys, err…guys? Wait, where’d everyone go?

Unsurprisingly, all our plans went out the window because of the pandemic. To make matters worse, we lost one of our brothers through illness early this year. Al-Fatihah buat Mohd Zulfadhli Faiq bin Baharuddin, semoga ditempatkan di kalangan para solihin.

Having said that, every obstacle can also be an opportunity.

Sure, a virus pretty much shut down civilisation for the 2020/2021 season. But you know what else is like a virus? An idea. According to the famous philosopher Leonardo DiCaprio:

An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.

So, what exactly is this idea? It’s the notion that one has a bigger role to play in society, a bigger responsibility than just to get good grades, secure a high-paying job, marry a pretty lady, and focus on making money.

Keluar membimbing negara
Maju terus mara

As Form 1 students at the Prep School, we were taught John F. Kennedy’s words: Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

With that idea in mind, since the start of the pandemic, our boys have been actively supporting the nation’s frontliners and healthcare facilities.

Initially, this mostly took the form of food packet distribution at the COVID-19 Integrated Quarantine and Treatment Centre (PKRC) 2.0 at the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park Serdang (MAEPS). But in April 2021 when case numbers were rising rapidly and there was a need for manpower at the COVID-19 Assessment Centre (CAC) at Stadium Malawati, Shah Alam, our boys volunteered to help under the auspices of the IMAM Response & Relief Team (IMARET).

Chief of them all is Dr Ahmad Munawwar Helmi; no, this is not even a figure of speech, he literally is the IMARET COVID-19 Taskforce Coordinator! Working tirelessly throughout the pandemic, his efforts have been crucial in giving physical, mental, and emotional support to the nation’s frontliners. +10 points to Ahmad House!

Captain Syed Fayez Idid, a pilot who is ‘on leave’ because of the pandemic, was one of the earliest to join Munawwar at the CAC. In his capacity as team leader, he helped to train new volunteers on top of maintaining the smooth running of the CAC.

Captain Amirul Hijjas raised some money, got his mother to cook some food, and personally drove (by car, not aeroplane) to the CAC to distribute lunch to the frontliners. Some of us, like Hazrul and Azri, took leave from work and donned personal protective equipments (PPE) for the first time in our lives while volunteering at the CAC. Others like Amir chose to contribute lunch packs to the frontliners. Behind the scenes, the rest of the batch conducted their own fundraising initiatives to support all this volunteer work.

For those who aren’t aware, volunteering at the CAC is not an easy task. It can involve lots of time and effort and carries significant risk particularly if you haven’t yourself been vaccinated.

Sure, in the grand scheme of things, these are miniscule contributions compared to the actual effort of fighting COVID-19 by our frontliners. But anyone who has ever done volunteer work knows this: it is not a zero-sum game, every little bit helps!

Therein also lies the beauty of charity.

What do I mean by this? Well, has it ever occurred to you that we only truly keep what we give to charity? Our wealth, our time, our families…none of these will accompany us to the grave EXCEPT for what we have used or given to help others.

Reputation-wise, MCKK is not known for its academic prowess (I hear ‘Intergom’ is the place to be these days). But if I were writing one of those Facebook posts about ’The Importance of Your SPM Results’ for the benefit of our SPM 2020 & 2021 juniors, here’s what I would say to them:

“Your worth is not determined by fast cars, good grades, or the amount of money in your Bitcoin wallet. Whatever your results are, think about how you are going to contribute to society.”

Towards the end of the musical Hamilton, the protagonist Alexander Hamilton asks:

What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.

So for our #DuaDekad anniversary, we hope to inspire others to volunteer their time, money, and effort to charity. Let this be our legacy, inshaAllah.

Fiat Sapientia Virtus

Should a university be allowed to bar a student from taking an exam for refusing the COVID-19 jab?

As a general principle, I’d say: NO.

Recently, however, I read that my own university was taken to task by the Higher Education Ministry for doing just that: barring a medical student from taking an exam because she was unvaccinated.

So, now that we have a bit more context, let’s return to the original question, shall we?

Should a university be allowed to bar a medical student from taking an exam for refusing the COVID-19 jab?

Here, I believe that the answer is: YES!

Just to be clear, I don’t now the exact circumstances leading to the abovementioned incident, and I actually agree that it is important to educate rather than coerce people into being vaccinated.

Nevertheless, this provides us with an excellent learning opportunity: how do we balance someone’s RIGHT with their RESPONSIBILITY to others?

With regards to a medical student who will inshaAllah become a doctor in the future, I think it is not unreasonable for society to expect a few things from that person. Some of my colleagues have already made this point, but I’d like to reiterate it using two examples: handwashing and sleep.

Handwashing

In his book ‘Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance’, Atul Gawande writes about the importance of hand hygiene and the difficulties in doing it properly in a busy hospital setting. But let’s take a step back and imagine a doctor who doesn’t even believe in all this ‘hand hygiene’ business.

Say for example that he or she doesn’t subscribe to Koch’s postulates and instead believes that all diseases are caused by ‘angin’ (literally: wind) imbalances. Clearly, washing one’s hands doesn’t do anything to remove ‘angin’ from the body. Everyone KNOWS you need to treat ‘angin’ with acupuncture, homeopathy, or traditional massage! (warning: sarcasm)

But are we seriously going to allow anyone who believes in that sort of thing to go anywhere near patients?

Of course not!

But, but…aren’t we impinging on that person’s right to become a doctor simply because his or her beliefs aren’t aligned with so-called ’modern medicine’? Damn you big pharma/Illuminati/<insert favourite bogeyman here>!

What people often forget to consider is that when you become a doctor, your rights to various things often have to make way for your responsibilities to your patient.

Sleep

Here’s another example: what if a doctor refuses to attend to an emergency because it will disrupt their sleep?

I know it sounds ridiculous ( yes it is!) but let’s say the doctor has read Matthew Walker’s book ‘Why We Sleep’ and correctly surmises that lack of sleep leads to all sorts of cardiovascular, cognitive, and immunological problems. As a matter of fact, he or she would be right; lack of sleep kills!

But, again, how long are we going to let this doctor practise if they continue to prioritise their RIGHT to sleep over their RESPONSIBILITY to their patient?

Not very long, I hope.

When it comes to COVID-19 and healthcare professionals, I think it is reasonable to expect that those looking after the most vulnerable members of our society should at least be vaccinated.

Vaccines have been proven to save lives; in other words, they work. Are they completely risk-free? Of course not, nothing is, not even plain water or oxygen!

Can anyone guarantee that they will never lead to complications in the future? Of course not, but then again, can you guarantee that you will be alive in the next second? Can anyone absolutely guarantee anything, really?

So here’s the bottom line: take the vaccine. Indeed, take whatever vaccine that is offered to you by the Government. They’re not all exactly alike (different mechanisms, different clinical trial results etc) but ALL the approved vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death in COVID-19.

Finally, let me conclude by saying this:

Being a doctor IS a noble profession. For many people, it’s a noble profession not because you get the title ‘Dr’ in front of your name, or because you get to make loads of money (I’m still saving for my Aston Martin!), but because we make certain personal sacrifices in order to help OTHER people get better. If that means we don’t get to have as much freedom to demand our rights as the next person, so be it.

That is the price we pay for being part of this fraternity.

Divinity School

From Wikipedia:

The Divinity School is a medieval building and room in the Perpendicular style in Oxford, England, part of the University of Oxford. Built between 1427 and 1483, it is the oldest surviving purpose-built building for university use, specifically for lectures, oral exams and discussions on theology.

Nowadays, it is arguably more famous for being the set of Hogwarts Infirmary.

I was especially attracted to the ceiling with its 455 crests representing the various families and institutions who donated money used to build the Divinity School. Looking through the tall windows from the inside, it is possible to see a Christopher Wren building, the Sheldonian Theatre on one side, and Radcliffe Camera on the other.

Unfortunately, tickets for the 90-minute tour of the Bodleian Library were sold out, but I’m still hopeful I’ll be able to get a spot one of these days. Accio ticket!

Selling Hope For $56,000/year

I am deeply concerned about the way the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Biogen’s aducanumab for use in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

As a neurologist, and currently a PhD student in Clinical Neurosciences working on memory disorders, I see people with various forms of cognitive impairment. Indeed, many of them have Alzheimer’s disease and are desperate for something, anything, to treat the condition.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate how devastating it is to slowly lose one’s memory. Unlike losing an arm to gangrene, for example, it is not a painful condition. And yet, you can lose an arm, or a leg, and still be essentially the same person. But take away someone’s memories, and what’s left is but a shadow of their former self. Ask any person caring for a loved one who has dementia: what wouldn’t you give to restore their memories so that you can have just one more day with that person?

The approval of aducanumab is highly unusual because there’s no convincing evidence that it actually works. Sure, Biogen are claiming that in a subset of patients, on a certain dose of the medication, you can see some statistically significant (God I hate that phrase!) difference. But let’s be clear here: this sort of selective interpretation of the evidence is rightly frowned upon by the scientific community. To make matters worse, aducanumab has potentially dangerous side effects: 40% of patients developed brain swelling after receiving it.

Despite all that, I’m still willing to accept the justification for approving it under rigorous conditions. After all, Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating condition, and we are all desperate for a treatment.

What I cannot understand, and cannot accept, is how the FDA can simply let Biogen set the price at $56,000 for a year’s supply of aducanumab.

This is cruelty.

This is greed, taken to a whole new level.

How can it not be, when, according to this article in Nature, “if 5% of the United States’ 6 million Alzheimer’s patients receive the treatment, the drug’s revenue would reach nearly $17 billion per year”?

Seriously, who needs 5G-microchip-anti-vaccine controversies when real life is even worse? How do we justify letting a company charge the equivalent of people’s life savings for an unproven treatment just by dangling the chance of a cure?

So please spare me all this nonsense about caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease. If Biogen really cared about patients, they wouldn’t be charging $56,000 for an unproven treatment. I hope the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) here in the UK will do the right thing by not approving its use on such flimsy evidence.