In 1992, Professor Thiruma (Garrie) Arumugam was poised to achieve his dream of becoming a GP. He had been accepted into medical school and had just commenced his studies when war intervened, forcing him to flee his native Sri Lanka.
“I spent six months in Singapore learning English, then moved to Australia to be with my brother,” he says. “Those were difficult years. I wanted to return to study but couldn’t enrol as a student because of my visa status. Instead I went from job to job, just working to survive.”
Arumugam still saw medical school as his end goal when he commenced a Bachelor of Medical Science in 1995 at the University of Sydney. But, as fate would have it, a couple of world-class scientists prompted Arumugam to change course. “As an undergraduate, I attended a lecture given by two leading neurobiologists, Professor Geoffrey Burnstock and Professor Max Bennett,” he says, smiling. “As they talked about their research and discoveries, I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’”
“After that lecture, neuroscience began to fascinate me. I wanted to understand how different cell types in the brain used chemicals to communicate.”
A PhD in Pharmacology at the University of Queensland followed, along with a series of postdoctoral fellowships that saw Arumugam work in some of the most prestigious laboratories in the world, from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center to the United States’ National Institute of Health (NIH).
The early morning starts – Arumugam recalls that the Chief of the Neuroscience Laboratory at the NIH started work at 5am every day – and the years spent at the bench cemented Arumugam’s reputation as a world expert on neurodegeneration and ischaemia, the restriction of blood supply to tissue. “Ischemia in the heart is called a heart attack and in the brain it’s called a stroke,” he explains. “It can also occur in the gut, liver, kidney and muscle.”
Today, Arumugam is collaborating with scientists around the world, and Professor Chris Sobey and Professor Grant Drummond at La Trobe University, on vascular dementia and ischaemic stroke, conditions caused by inadequate blood supply carrying oxygen and nutrients to the brain. “Research in our laboratory has identified some of the mechanisms that cause neurons to die,” he says, “and understanding this at the molecular level will help us to identify new therapeutic approaches to treat the disease.”
Arumugam is inspired by his research, his colleagues, and making a difference to the health and wellbeing of others. “We don’t live forever,” he says. “I believe it is important to make a contribution to humanity. For me, that involves making scientific discoveries that may help future generations.”