News at Medicine - June 2019 - When research passion meets donor pride

When research passion meets donor pride
June 14, 2019
Augustine J. Devasahayam (AJ) is working hard to make life better for people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in this province and ultimately around the world. His research path led him here to Atlantic Canada; to a place with the highest rate of MS in the world.
John and Janet O'Dea with fellowship recipients Arthur Chaves and AJ Devasahayam, and Dean Margaret Steele at the 2019 Scholarships and Awards ceremony. Photo credit: Jennifer Armstrong, HSIMS

AJ, a PhD candidate, is one of the first recipients of the three new O’Dea Research Fellowships, established by John and Janet O’Dea, and valued at $10,000 each. Megan Kirkland, MD-PhD learner, and Arthur Chaves, also a PhD candidate, were also recipients.
The O’Dea’s felt strongly about supporting individuals with disorders like MS so they can ‘get more of their lives back.’ That motivation fits very well with AJ’s passion.
“People living with long-standing diseases such as MS need new treatments founded on novel ideas, conceptions and discoveries. At Dr. [Michelle] Ploughman's laboratory, I have opportunities to test new rehabilitation ideas. My work is geared towards testing proof of principle of a novel idea, which in turn may improve MS patient outcomes in the future.”
AJ’s research journey began as a physiotherapist looking at fitness among sedentary individuals in India. He took a keen interest in testing, validating and developing new strategies to restore movement in those who had walking difficulties.
While working as a research assistant in New Zealand, he saw the problems faced by people with MS. “Both clinicians and people with MS know that participating in regular exercise will improve physical endurance and walking ability. However, people with MS report fatigue and heat sensitivity as some of the barriers that prevent them from engaging in regular exercise.” AJ wanted to find ways to mitigate those barriers.
AJ, however, is glad he came to study in Canada as he says he has more research opportunities here. And the O'Dea Research Fellowship encourages him to ‘think bigger.’ He wants to become a successful rehabilitation researcher in Canada, undertaking projects that advance fundamental basic science research into the clinical setting.
AJ says winning the O’Dea Research Fellowship is a culmination of several years of focused work and credits Dr. Ploughman’s support as the reason he’s succeeded thus far.
AJ met John and Janet O’Dea at the scholarships and awards ceremony recently.
“I felt extremely honoured to meet them at the ceremony. I thanked them for supporting the final year of my doctoral studies at Memorial. I mentioned how the O’Dea Research Fellowship will help with achieving the goals of my PhD journey.”
Work like AJ’s in rehabilitation is what motivated the O’Dea’s to establish the fellowship at Memorial University. Their support stems from Janet’s career as a physiotherapist and John’s leadership and support as campaign co-chair for the Faculty of Medicine’s Building a Healthy Tomorrow capital campaign. 
“I was immensely impressed,” said Mr. O’Dea, about his time as co-chair. “I became motivated by the work that was being done here. I discovered stories that needed to be told as to why this is such a worthwhile medical school to support.”
For Mrs. O’Dea, it was her career as a physiotherapist and clinical coordinator for physiotherapy candidates pursuing studies at Dalhousie’s School of Physiotherapy.
She talks about one time when she had coffee with Dr. Ploughman. “I was amazed and impressed. We were both blown away with the research happening there and equally impressed with the graduate students we met.”
“We both felt strongly about health care, about research and especially about providing opportunities for students; opportunities that would contribute to their development and/or leverage future possibilities.”
The O’Dea’s are hoping their contributions will lead to “focused, evidenced based research with an opportunity to collaborate with others in their research field. It is encouraging to know that there is significant and leading research going on in rehabilitation medicine, especially in neuroplasticity.”
For more information on AJ’s research, visit our Gazette story, No looking back: