New Zealand’s most cited scientist features in a series of interviews with global experts for World Brain Day.
Professor of Neurology and Epidemiology at AUT, Valery Feigin, is the most cited scientist in New Zealand. With career citations approaching 145,000, he is considered one of the world’s most influential scientific minds and ranks among the top one percent.
In an interview with Professor Tissa Wijeratne, Chair of World Brain Day, Feigin explains that neurological disorders are now the leading cause of disability worldwide. He also reveals his personal journey, from Novosibirsk to New Zealand, to becoming a global leader in neuroepidemiology.
Born and raised in Siberia, where Russia borders with Kazakhstan and Mongolia, Feigin followed in the footsteps of his father – a medical doctor and professor at Novosibirsk State Medical University.
“The mystery of the brain always fascinated me – it still fascinates me. I had no doubt about what speciality to choose. I became a general neurologist and enjoyed practicing in a hospital and outpatient clinic for several years,” he says.
“All of a sudden my father died of a devastating stroke at the age of 58, very young. He was a professor at the medical school I graduated from, so he was well aware of the health issues. He had elevated blood pressure, but otherwise he was perfectly healthy,” says Feigin.
“This event made me start thinking about stroke and how to avoid it. Not much was known about stroke epidemiology, risk factors and prevention. And, there was no effective treatment at the time.”
During the early-90s, Feigin was privileged to work as a research fellow at the Mayo Clinic (U.S) with one of the founders of stroke epidemiology, Dr Jack Whisnant, whom he regards as a mentor – along with Dr Yuri Nikitin at the Institute of Internal Medicine RAMS (Russia), who got him involved in the World Health Organisation (WHO) SIB-MONICA Study.
As an emerging researcher, the best way to gain recognition and acknowledgement is to be involved in major studies and publications that could lead to a change in practice, says Feigin.
“You need the support of a good mentor. Often, a lot of time is wasted with bureaucracy and this can be avoided if you have the backing of a recognised expert.”
With Russian being his native language, Feigin had to learn to write academic articles in English. His research work and training at the Mayo Clinic and Erasmus University (The Netherlands) proved extremely helpful.
“What’s more important is to have a really good, well-designed study. Then the language barrier to being published in top academic journals is not such a big problem,” he says.
He also calls for New Zealand researchers to take a more global perspective.
Feigin received an invitation to take up a professorial position at the University of Auckland in 1999, and relocated to the Antipodes with wife Tatiana and daughter Svetlana.
“We became Kiwis and New Zealand is now our home,” he says.
In 2008, Feigin moved to AUT and established the National Institute of Stroke and Applied Neurosciences (NISAN).
In life beyond science, Feigin has been happily married for 46 years. Although, he admits that he doesn’t have much time outside of work and work doesn’t end at 5pm.
“Working long hours and weekends is not a problem, that’s what I enjoy doing. But I appreciate the support of my wife and family in allowing me to do that,” he says.
Wijeratne has known Feigin for more than 10 years. He says Feigin always responds to emails within a couple of hours. “I cannot think of a single email to you where I didn’t get a prompt reply.”
July 22 is World Brain Day. Established in 2014 by the World Federation of Neurology, the main objective of this day is to increase public awareness and promote advocacy related to brain health.
This year, World Brain Day is dedicated to ending Parkinson’s Disease, a neurodegenerative brain disease that affects the mind, movement and almost all aspects of brain function.