Dr. Shakti Chandra answers The Telegram's 20 Questions

Daniel MacEachern dmaceachern@thetelegram.com
Published on March 17, 2014
Dr. Shakti Chandra, an associate professor of anatomy, sits in her office at Memorial University in St. John’s. — Photo by By Daniel MacEachern/The Telegram

Dr. Shakti Chandra, an associate professor of anatomy at Memorial University, worries people take better care of their cars than they do their own bodies.

 “How many bodies do you have? You won’t put anything but gas in your car. Why? Because the car will stop, and it’ll stop right away. Just because your body will go on and on and on and on for a long time before it stops, you think you can do what you want to it.”

In 2013, Chandra received her second student-granted Excellence in Teaching award.

It’s not just MUN students who benefit from her expertise, either; she visits grade schools — showing children the differences between healthy lungs and smokers’ lungs, and healthy livers versus cirrhotic ones — and has posted anatomy lessons on YouTube.

Last year, Chandra spent time in Germany preserving human specimens for MUN via a process called “plastination,” which replaces the water and fat in a human body with plastics, keeping them from decaying or smelling.

“For teaching, to me, the best (way) to learn is to be able to see the real parts,” she says. “Once you see what you’re made of, my aim is not just to show what it looks like, but then you can perhaps understand it better, that you’d look after it better,” she said.

“If I can change just one person in terms of what they do, how they look after themselves, because of what they’re made of, then that’s worthwhile. Prevention is better than cure.”

She enjoys music and gardening, and treasures two months she spent in 2003 backpacking around Australia and New Zealand.

Recently, she sat down in her office with The Telegram to answer 20 Questions.


Twitter: @TelegramDaniel

What is your full name?

Shakti Chandra.

When and where were you born?

I was born July 1948, in New Delhi, India.

Where is home today?

St. John’s, Newfoundland.

What is one act of rebellion

you committed as a youth?

The one that comes to mind is that my father, once I finished school, wanted me to join B.Sc. home science, go into that field. And I wanted to do medicine, so I wanted to go into pre-med. … I went on a hunger strike for two days. … I said I wasn’t going to eat or drink or do anything, and if they didn’t let me do that, then I wasn’t going to do home science. My father was a physician himself. … His reasoning was, he somehow had a feeling that he may not be able to see me through, that medicine was a long program, whereas (home science) would be three years and finished. … And even the resources that if he wasn’t there, how would I proceed? We didn’t have those privileges of getting loans or student loans or anything else.

I take it the hunger strike worked?

It did work. It was two days. An uncle and other relatives came and said to him, assured him that if something happened to him, they’d make sure that I went through my school once I started. And actually, it did happen. He didn’t live through to see me graduate. I was in fourth year when he passed away. He was only young. He was 57.

Where did you go to school?

I went to a school in New Delhi, called All-India Institute of Medical Sciences. In short it is called AIIMS. It was and still is considered to be one of the best schools in India.

What’s the best advice

you’ve ever received?

I guess “follow your heart.” But when I give advice, and what I follow myself, and I guess it could be the answer to any other question, is that you try your best and accept the rest. And know your limitations. That’s all I can do, is do my best. As long as I’ve done my best, I’m satisfied. If I want to be an Olympic swimmer, I can’t be. But my thing was to swim, and I enjoy swimming, and that’s great.

How did you come to wind up

at Memorial University?

My then-husband, now ex, got a job offer at MUN and we came as part of the family, so for the first six months I didn’t have anything to do. I was looking after the kids and the house in the new place and had never seen snow. Then I got a job to teach for two months because somebody who was supposed to teach withdrew. They were supposed to come from England, a first-year teacher was supposed to start. The person in charge of anatomy knew I was there, and a graduate, and asked if I’d teach for two months to help out, and the rest is history. Forty years ago. … I came here in ’74, in February.

Can you compare the weather in St. John’s to the weather in New Delhi?

I landed here the 28th of February, in Gander. The flight didn’t come straight to St. John’s, it came to Gander, and then you had to wait there for the EPA to bring you to St. John’s. It was full of snow and I’d never seen snow before in my life. My daughter, the youngest one, was only one month old, and she was wrapped up in her blanket. No boots, no nothing. Quite a shock. … I thought it was very pretty. I was fascinated.

What was it that drew you to medicine in general, anatomy in particular?

When I joined medicine, or I wanted to do medicine, it was to treat people, to treat patients. My father was a physician, and growing up I’d always see him looking after patients, whether they had a cut or something else. And it was more of the healing aspect, more of the curing thing that attracted me. I wanted to do that. Anatomy was just a coincidence, that as I said, they needed somebody to teach for two months, and then it worked well. The kids were little. One thing led to another. The reason I stayed was because I enjoyed teaching. If not, I would have switched. If you’d asked me when I was going to med school if I’d teach anatomy, I’d say, “What? You must be joking!”

What’s the best part of the job for you?

I guess it’s the satisfaction of teaching the students, whether they’re young or old, when I explain something and they get it. That’s extremely satisfying.

How about the other side — what’s the most stressful aspect of the job?

I don’t know, I’ve done it so long it’s not that stressful. But still, what I find hard is making up exam questions. I don’t like writing exam questions, so that to me is most stressful. … (Also) working with cadavers — the smell, the sight — dissecting, spending hours generally alone (with bodies) displaying intricate details.

Where do you find inspiration?

From the students. Well, if you say “who” I’ll say the students. If you say “where,” then I’ll say everywhere. Sometimes it’s the simplest things, mostly nature, whether it’s in the garden or here (gestures to the plants in her office).

What is your most treasured possession?

I would say my garden, at the house. My reason for that is that I did it all myself. It was done on a shoestring budget. Every stone that I brought and put there — first, it’s unique. It’s got no grass in it. And I have made it. I brought the stones from somewhere, I put them there. They all have a story to tell. And the garden itself has a little bit of philosophy in it, at the heart of it, as I was raking the ground and put the stones to one side and made the path. To see something grow out of there, after it was covered with snow — when that is gone, you look at the ground and see plants come up. How do they survive after all that?

Are you reading anything right now?

I don’t read very often, because I find it very hard to sit still and read. I’m always doing things; I’m a doing person. But I did finish reading a book recently, and that’s because I was travelling, and that’s largely when I do read. The book was called “Dancing to the Flute” (by Manisha Jolie Amin). A friend of mine had given it to me. It’s about a young boy who was in India, and how he learns to play the flute. He grows up, and I could relate a lot more to it. Sometimes, I read books on the Kobo, or audiobooks. Nothing that great — another one I read recently would be “Namesake,” by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Do you have a favourite movie?

I don’t see movies very often, and when I do go, many times I fall asleep. (laughs) The one that I’ve seen more than others would be “The Sound of Music.”

What is your greatest indulgence?

Hmmm. Recently it was buying a pair of earrings. I’d gone to a store for something else, to get a ring fixed. I hadn’t gone to buy that, but I ended up spending well over $3,000 to buy that. … Another was this fur coat, which I bought more than 25 years ago. That’s kept me warm for all these years, and fortunately I can still fit in it.

What bugs you?

I guess dishonesty. It bugs me to wait. If you have a time, and you’re made to wait, wait, wait, that bugs me.

What would you say are your best

and worst qualities?

Best quality, I would say, is being helpful. Caring. I really genuinely care about people and things. I do things because it makes me feel good, or I want to do it without any expectation of reward or return, so that I would say is the best quality. … The worst quality, at present — that’s tough to say. If it was 20 years ago I might have said I’m a little short-tempered, or I get angry. My son said, “Sometimes you don’t pay attention to your surroundings.” So he’d be saying something, and your answer is completely off. Or I’m always looking for a deal. So I go into a store and try to make a deal.

Who is one person, living or deceased, you’d like to have lunch with?

Roger Federer. I’m a tennis fan. I love to play tennis. I admire him. Every time he has to hit the ball to stay on top, or to stay wherever he is, it doesn’t happen because he did it yesterday — you can’t get anything today for that. So you keep at it. I like his attitude and the way he presents himself.

If you were premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, what is one thing you’d try to do?

What I’d try to do would be to emphasize health education. Try it younger, and educate. Because that is the key to everything: education. And the younger you start, the better.