What's up doc, doc, doc?

11 July 2002
ASSOCIATE Professor Alan "Zig" St Clair Gibson will bring to ceremonial closure an epic 16-year spell of study and research when he picks up his MD this week, the degree the final chapter in a remarkable treble of 'doctorates' procured at UCT.

St Clair Gibson, based at the UCT/MRC Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine (RUESSM) in the Department of Human Biology, first completed an MBChB in 1990, and obtained his PhD in 1997.

Currently in the third month of the one-year Fogarty International Visiting Fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington DC in the United States, he will fly in to Cape Town this week to meet up again with friends and colleagues, and of course to don his MD garb.

"I think this must be a record for endurance or stupidity," St Clair Gibson jokes about his marathon stint as 'student'. "Studying for 16 years nearly killed me. "As I'm now 35, this means I have spent nearly half my life studying at UCT."

It wasn't just mania that drove him to start on the MD, but also the need to put the finishing touches to work he had started in his PhD, he says. Entitled Fatigue, aging and the neuromuscular system, St Clair Gibson's MD thesis looked at consciousness perception of the sensation of fatigue in chronically fatigued athletes. "We showed that fatigue is not a physical process so much as conscious perception of subconscious brain activity."

Giving him a nudge in the MD direction were supervisors (and "excellent role models") Professors Mike Lambert and Tim Noakes, St Clair Gibson acknowledges. "They encouraged me to keep on going after the PhD and get the MD – it was part of the work ethos of the Exercise Science Unit that you can always do more and must always try and make your work better."

Which is exactly what he's doing at the NIH, where he is working on brain stimulation techniques with Professor Mark Hallett, who he describes as the world's leading expert on movement disorders and motor cortex function. St Clair Gibson is familiarising himself with the techniques of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation and dynamic EEG (electroencephalogram) analysis.

"The first technique can alter memory formation and memory storage, and complements our work on conscious perception of brain processes. The only difficulty is finding subjects who are not scared to have their thoughts altered or messed around with," he says, only half in jest.

The second technique will help in understanding complex systems and the way the brain and body interacts.

While there will be no end to his many scholarly pursuits at UCT, St Clair Gibson emphasises he has no plans for yet another degree. "No thanks. Two doctorates and a medical degree is quite enough. It was quite a mental challenge to keep on going to finish them off."

Instead, he plans to settle for whatever level of normality the life of a scientist offers. "Each day is filled with excitement and frustration of learning new and complicated things," he ruminates.

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