Student searches for cure

Savant Thakur, born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, commences his PhD researching muscle wasting disorders.

This article originally appeared in Voice

A diligent student with a stellar academic transcript of first class honours applying to do their PhD will inspire huge promise.

If they also have an easy-going and humble personality that belies their outstanding academic achievements, you know you have someone special.

When that student has muscular dystrophy with a single minded determination to undergo research that may improve the lives of others with muscular dystrophy, you realise that this is a rare and exceptional individual.

Savant Thakur was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), the most severe of the muscular dystrophies – a disease characterised by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness, and which affects males.

Boys with DMD lose the ability to walk usually before their teens, and eventually all muscles are affected, including the muscles of breathing and swallowing as well as the heart.

"Ever since I was young I had a big interest in science and during hospital visits had a lot of contact with doctors and researchers which inspired me to think that I could contribute to muscular dystrophy research and do something to help others with my condition," Mr Thakur says.

Mr Thakur has just taken a huge step to fulfilling that inspiration as he commences his PhD, researching muscle wasting disorders and treatments that will improve quality of life for patients with DMD and related diseases.

He comes to his PhD after completing a first class honours degree in the Bachelor of Biomedicine, winning an Australian Post Graduate award, and securing the prestigious international June Opie Fellowship, awarded annually to a disabled student who has aspirations for research and academic pursuits.

"Before the start of my honours year, I went around to a few labs to investigate my options and noticed that when people saw me in a wheelchair they seemed a bit hesitant about whether I could manage the lab work and achieve anything in research," Mr Thakur says.

"Gordon [Professor Gordon Lynch, Head of Physiology Department, School of Biomedical Sciences] had faith in me, and with the support of the Disability Liaison Unit (DLU) we've shown that if you get all the support you need, you can achieve what you want. And even though I cannot do things with my own hands, I have shown that I can direct someone and can still get results.

"The University has been excellent, from the first day onwards. The DLU has provided me with support in note taking, scribing during exams, assistance during practical classes and a support researcher that I could instruct to set up lab experiments for me. Without them, I don't think any of my achievements would be possible.

Professor Lynch says the support team in his research group is very strong and has worked closely with Mr Thakur over the last year.

"Going forward I have peace of mind knowing that if any issues arise they will be handled properly," he says.

And then there is football …

Don't get him started on football and the Western Bulldogs. He's a self-confessed 'sports nut' with copious colourful advice and critiques of pre-season matches, injuries, and of course, umpiring.

His interests also include movies and social media.

"I like reading a lot of scientific findings that are going around, some on Facebook and Twitter. With social media you can project what you learn to others outside of your academic circle. I think it's important to engage with people outside your sphere," Mr Thakur says.

Professor Lynch says getting his inspirational message across through social medial communities, especially patient advocacy groups, could be an important avenue for Mr Thakur where he can develop his profile as an ambassador.

"After completing my PhD, my aim is to go onto academic teaching and research at a university," Mr Thakur says. "Gordon is my role model. He has inspired me with all of his achievements as a researcher, educator and mentor.

"Anyone who has goals and wants to achieve something can, as long as they get all the support they need."

His advice to others is, "strive towards your goals, just push on, learn from your mistakes and keep on pushing".

View 14 June Chanel 9 interview.