Prof Dirk De Ridder starts his new job tomorrow. Photo by
Leading Dunedin neurosurgery and establishing New
Zealand's first academic neurosurgery unit is his chance to
make a difference, Belgian neurosurgeon Prof Dirk De Ridder
''It is one of those few times in your life that you really
have the feeling you can make a difference. Everybody wants
to make a difference once in his lifetime.''
Prof De Ridder (46) will lead the southern node of South
Island neurosurgery, which to sustain three neurosurgeons is
complemented by a new University of Otago research unit.
He is pleased he did not know the political background to the
situation when he applied for the job, as it might have
coloured his perceptions.
He is grateful for the ''exceptional'' public fundraising
effort to endow the Chair in Neurosurgery, to which he is the
inaugural professor. Such an effort was only possible in a
country still ''young at heart'', and would never happen in
Belgium, he believed.
He starts work tomorrow at Dunedin Hospital, where the
university research unit will be sited. A priority was
integrating the Dunedin and Christchurch clinical nodes,
establishing each centre's areas of sub-specialisation. This
involved many practical matters, like how to manage the
liaison between different specialties necessary for many
neurosurgery procedures. He is aware of the history of
tension between the two centres culminating in the
appointment of the expert neurosurgery panel in 2010.
''I don't carry any history with me in regards to the
friction that might have existed between Christchurch and
''Coming from a country where these frictions exist all the
time makes it not abnormal for me to be thrown in such a
In Belgium, he was used to navigating the cultural
differences between the Flemish and the French, in both
family life, and at work.
''Part of my family come from the French-speaking part. We
never fight - we get along very well.''
That part of his training was with Christchurch neurosurgeon
Ronald Boet, in South Africa in the 1990s, also helped.
He is interested in the burgeoning field of neuromodulation,
which involves using electrical or magnetic stimulus to
change brain activity. His work included a recent experiment
to treat alcoholism by implanting an electrode in the brain.
He has also used electrodes to treat tinnitus.
While it sounded controversial, neuromodulation techniques
were less likely to change a person's personality traits than
pharmaceutical drugs, because they were tightly focused.
Pharmaceutical companies had largely lost interest in the
area, after spending a lot of money to find a new generation
of brain drugs, without success, he said.
As a clinical researcher, he was driven by the needs of the
local population, rather than starting with the problem and
finding research subjects. He hopes the research unit forges
close links with neuroscience, a particularly strong field in
It will take some time to get research under way, and he
wants to further consult fellow neurosurgeons Ahmad Taha and
Reuben Johnson before deciding on any projects.
Another research interest was establishing the basis for
belief in a deity. While science could not prove or disprove
the existence of God, it could show why belief was a common
''It is very possible that a God perception is a phantom
perception, just like you can have phantom pain and phantom
sound which has the advantage of explaining why it is so
The family arrived earlier this month, and sons Maarten (11)
and Stijn (13) started school this week. His wife Karin
Ongena, a general surgeon, planned to work as well, but only
once their sons were settled in. His brother, a paediatric
orthopaedic surgeon, lives in Wellington.
Prof De Ridder had been on the neurosurgical staff of Antwerp
University Hospital since 2000.