Doctorates rise from the ashes

Luxmanan Selvanesan and his wife, Carthika Luxmanan, prepare to graduate from the University of Otago yesterday. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Luxmanan Selvanesan and his wife, Carthika Luxmanan, prepare to graduate from the University of Otago yesterday. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
This is the day Dunedin residents Luxmanan Selvanesan and his wife, Carthika Luxmanan, once feared would never come, after a ''devastating'' house fire destroyed some key parts of his University of Otago PhD research.

The two former Otago doctoral students are graduating together today, as they had long hoped, he with a PhD in biochemistry, and she with a doctorate in anatomy.

They are among about 320 graduands who will graduate in person from Otago University, with qualifications mainly in law, commerce and health sciences, in a ceremony at the Regent Theatre, Dunedin, at 1pm.

Back in mid-2008, he and his wife were making good progress with their respective research, and also raising a young family- four children aged under 5.

Then one day - June 18 - during a chilly Dunedin winter, Mrs Luxmanan had left their Pine Hill house to undertake more study on campus and the children had been taken to their day-care facility.

Mr Luxmanan vividly remembers being in his study where he was continuing the intensive writing up of his thesis.

The room was filled with many papers, including writing work and printouts of academic articles.

He then switched on the gas heater.

It immediately malfunctioned, flame rushing to the back of the heater and bursting out of it.

He burned his hand as he unsuccessfully tried to extinguish the fire, which was already burning too fiercely, soon bursting out of the windows.

Firefighters quickly arrived but could not save his computer, and the important paperwork, including laboratory books containing some key experimental data.

He was most grateful his wife and children were safe but the fire initially had a shattering effect on their lives.

''`Devastated' was an understatement'', Mrs Luxmanan said.

For about 10 days they were looked after by friends before finding another place to live.

Now, the couple have completed their doctorates. He is a postdoctoral scientist, based at the Otago biochemistry department and working on a colorectal cancer prognostics project for Pacific Edge Ltd. Mrs Luxmanan is also a Pacific Edge scientist.

Crucial to their success was the ''tremendous amount of support'' from their respective academic department heads, thesis supervisors and the wider university.

After the fire, he initially took a break from his thesis work, concentrating on earning an income while his wife completed her studies.

His later return to doctoral study initially proved highly challenging and, at one stage, he was tempted to give up.

But his wife insisted he keep going and said she would not graduate with her PhD until he had completed his.

''I'm excited by the fact that it's all over and we can move forward with our lives now,'' Mr Luxmanan said.

- john.gibb@odt.co.nz