Oncology Surgeon and Global Health Researcher
Travelling to India and Fiji at a young age and seeing where his parents had emigrated from had a powerful impact on Avinash Sharma.
Witnessing first-hand how hard those living in circumstances less fortunate than himself had to work for significantly smaller reward was a tangible reminder that opportunities should be embraced and never squandered.
“The images and experiences from those trips left a lasting impression on me and even though I was quite young at the time I began to develop an idea of social awareness and a desire to be able to impact the lives of those less fortunate than myself.
I also got to see first-hand some of the work of my grandfather who spent a lot of time in Fiji working with the poor and the elderly in some of the country’s first rest homes.”
Attending Auckland Grammar School and “giving everything a go”, Avinash says it was ironic for someone who would go on to enter the medical profession that about the only subject he never took was biology.
“The decision to study medicine was driven by a sense of obligation at being able to directly impact someone’s life. The sheer scope with which one could pursue such an idea within medicine and in particular surgery really challenged me on many levels.”
After graduating in 2006 with distinction, his electives were spent in India at the All Indian Institute for Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in community and rural medicine and in Sao Paulo, Brasil at UNIFESP in renal transplant. He also made time to travel to rural Fiji for volunteer surgical work.
Avinash says the experiences would once again reinforce his belief that medicine is a vocation and as such there is no substitute for experience. He says it is equally important to have compassion, dedication and faith in your ability to bring about change.
Winning both Fulbright and William Georgetti Scholarships, Avinash elected to study for a Masters in Public Health at Oxford University focusing on Global health. His thesis focused on Health Care worker migration and its implications for different health care systems.
“I met some incredibly dedicated and inspiring healthcare workers in different parts of the world often working in very tough conditions. I was interested in the factors that influence their retention within healthcare systems.”
But it wasn’t all study while at Oxford. A keen cricketer, Avinash received a Blue scoring 185 not out in a match against rivals Cambridge on first class debut, a record that still stands today. To add to the significance of the occasion, younger brother Rajiv, who was also studying at Oxford at the time, captained the winning side.
Electing to return to New Zealand and completing his training in general surgery with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons between 2011-2016 while also completing a Doctorate in Medicine, his work included a national study of 4200 individuals randomly selected from the electoral roll to determine the prevalence of faecal incontinence in New Zealand; a condition people are often reluctant to talk about due to fear and embarrassment.
Currently based at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre (MSKCC) in New York, USA and working under the guidance and mentorship of fellow New Zealand ex-pat Sir Murray Brennan, Avinash is the inaugural Global Cancer Disparities Fellow and is working clinically as a surgeon in oncology.
“Working with ARGO (African Research Group for Oncology) my current research is looking at novel risk factors to explain the recent rise in cancer rates in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in populations in Nigeria. I have helped set up a breast cancer tissue biobank and have also been conducting research into the relationship between the microbiome and colorectal cancer risk, describing the gut microbiome for the first time in a West African population.”
Acknowledging the support of many colleagues and mentors along the way Avinash singles out two for particular mention.
“During my medical career, Professor Ian Bissett, my doctorate supervisor has been an amazing mentor and role model. His work as a surgeon in Nepal and in academic surgery has been a huge source of inspiration, as has the work of Professor John Windsor.
I was encouraged by both of them to study public health with a global focus. If you had told me as a naïve 18-year-old first year medical student that I would eventually end up in New York working at a leading cancer hospital performing robotic surgery and at the same time working on projects in sub-Saharan Africa, there is no way I would have believed you!”