ANU Spaces - Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake

16 November 2015

Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake is a practising Infectious Diseases Physician in Canberra. He is an Associate Professor of Medicine at ANU Medical School.

He will share significant events from the field in a public lecture on infectious diseases in Tales from a Disease Detective on Tuesday 17 November.

What is your job at ANU?

I'm on the Faculty of the Medical School. As a doctor, I'm based at Canberra Hospital. We have a large clinical school for our ANU students there. It's where much of the teaching gets done in the clinical years of their course. So my day-to-day job of seeing patients in hospital often involves having medical students on ward rounds. It's a great opportunity to teach on the job and their wide-eyed enthusiasm is always a plus for patients and doctors alike. I occasionally do come to the medical school for lectures and tutorials - it's always a pleasure to enjoy the tranquil and beautiful campus that is the ANU. I wish I could do it more.

What is your favourite spot on campus?

I enjoy the "whole package" of the ANU rather than one spot in particular, whether it's the iconic building housing the John Curtin School of Medical Research or Union Court teeming with students whose vitality and enthusiasm for life is infectious. 

If you were free for an afternoon, what would you do?

I'd have a picnic with my family. If they weren't free or had something better to do, then I'd watch an episode of some nerdy sci-fi show or indulge in my hobby, which is writing fiction.

You work in infectious disease. What type of diseases do you cover?

The more pertinent question is what we DON'T cover. It is a very broad field. All parts of the body can get infections (e.g. meningitis around the brain, pneumonia in the lungs, osteomyelitis of bones) and we encounter all of them. Then there are the "exotic" travel infections such as typhoid fever, Ebola and malaria, not to mention well-known "beasts" such as influenza. When our surgical colleagues have problems with post-operative infections (e.g. after hip placements or bowel surgery), they sometimes enlist our aid to fight the bugs. But a more overarching problem now is that many of these infections are now becoming drug-resistant. There are fewer antibiotics with which to treat them and those that are available are often ridiculously expensive and/or full of side effects. It's a scary prospect to reflect on as we enter into Antibiotic Awareness Week from 16 November.

Where has your work taken you?

I've travelled far, but more metaphorically than geographically. Infectious Diseases seems to capture the public interest more than any other sub-speciality of medicine with the result that stories about infections frequent the media. This has led to me having to comment in the local and sometimes international media about breaking news related to infections. Working with the media is something that I had never anticipated when studying medicine, but it is a rewarding experience, allowing me to educate an audience I would otherwise never reach and teaching me how to optimise my communication skills.

I have always enjoyed teaching medical students. It is that passion for teaching that led me to write my first book which was case-based learning for medical students and junior doctors. Thanks to the support from my publisher, McGraw-Hill Australia, the third edition has just been released. Inventing case scenarios for these reference books unwittingly revealed a love for the narrative, which ultimately led to my foray into fiction. I have written one novel ("Chilli, Chicks and Heart Attacks: The Misadventures of an Intern" which I describe as "Bend it like Beckham" meets "Scrubs") and published a poem and short stories for a collection of children's books. Writing fiction is a wonderful diversion from the tedious and sometimes tempestuous periods of our daily lives. It is a hobby that I recommend for anyone.

What is something that people might not know about you?

I played the piano accordion as an early teenager because I thought it was cool  (shaking my head in disbelief).