Alexander Zakirov: I dream of helping people with spinal cord injuries.

Alexander the neuroscientist wants to improve the lives of those with similar fates

“It’s easier for me to talk about simple things in Estonian and about work in English,” says Alexander Zakirov (25), who is continuing his Master’s studies at the University of Glasgow despite a severe blow that fate had in store for him.

You graduated the Järve Russian High School in Kohtla-Järve with a gold medal (with honours). Were there any B’s on the horizon that would have put that in jeopardy?

No, I did a lot of planning and decided that it would be all A’s if I want to get the gold medal. It was a pretty big achievement for me. Although getting a gold medal doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smart – perhaps it only shows that you’re hard working.

What was your favourite subject?

I think it was either biology or chemistry.

Neurosciences, your major in Glasgow, is quite a good combination of these two subjects. How many years do you have left before reaching the diploma?

Right now, I’m in year four of the five-year course and I should get my Master’s degree next year. This year, however, I’m actually away on an internship in Leeds. We’re researching how electrical stimulation, medications and exercise help spinal cord regeneration in rats. The results are quite promising – for example, there are rats who at first can’t move their hind legs at all, but after the procedures they’re able to walk and even stand up on their hind legs.

How do you like rats?

Yeah, I like them – lab rats are white, clean and cute, with red eyes. They’re also very smart, I must say. If you compare them to mice, the difference is especially impressive.

How does Leeds compare to Glasgow?

They are both beautiful green cities, not too big or noisy like London, for example. The only difference would be, how to put it… There’s more rubbish on the streets of Glasgow. Also, they have a bunch of weird foods, like beer fried Snickers. It sounds so disgusting that I haven’t even tried it.

How easy was it to get into the free study program?

It was very competitive, but somehow I got lucky. Of course, there were a lot of candidates, but only ten were selected. After that, first, you had to have very good grades and, second, you had an interview with two lectors. What matter are your plans for the future and your motivation, because they prefer people who aren’t doing their Master’s just for the sake of the diploma.

So what are your future plans?

The plan is to graduate the university, but after that it’s one big question mark – should I go to work or continue studies in a doctoral programme? To be quite honest, I’m not even sure about whether I want to stay here, go somewhere else or go back to Estonia.

If I look at it from the perspective of a disabled person – seeing as I get around in a wheelchair – it’s much easier for me in Great Britain. There’s access everywhere, I can use the public transportation system to go anywhere, and you see quite a few people getting around in wheelchairs at the university as well. Unfortunately, it’s not like that in Estonia, because even in Tallinn, at least outside of shopping centres, it’s nearly impossible to find a café where you could go in a wheelchair.

Just recently I was in a situation, where some friends and I were planning to meet in Tallinn, so I called ahead to a café to ask about wheelchair access. They told me that of course it’s accessible, please do come. So I get there and see that there are steps leading to the dining room and the wheelchair does not fit into the restroom. Unfortunately, people don’t understand what it means to be in a wheelchair.

How did you end up in a wheelchair? 

It all happened in just a second in August 2013. I decided that I wanted to spend a month in Estonia, to see my friends and family. That’s when my friends and I thought that we’d try and get an adrenaline rush going, just like we did as kids. We went down to the lake and started jumping off a trampoline into the water. I got a few good jumps in, which was great, but then I worked up even more speed and jumped. To me it seemed that I jumped out very far, but it was an illusion. I actually landed quite close to shore, where it wasn’t deep at all. I hit my head against the bottom and heard a crack. I felt my body go limp right away, I couldn’t move my hands or legs and started to drown. My friends were on the beach, waiting for me to get out and, of course, I tried to call out to them for help, “I’m drowning, I’m drowning, please help!” But I was face down in the water and couldn’t lift my head anymore, they thought I was messing around.

The whole thing lasted for 30 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity to me.

Finally, one of my friends came to help and asked what happened. Since I study neurosciences, I knew right away that I had broken my neck. I asked the ambulance to take me to Tartu and the following morning they operated on me. For the next two years, all I did was rehabilitation.

Now I’m in a rather good condition for my type of trauma. I can hold my head up well and I’m quite strong compared to others, who have ended up in a similar situation. My hands and arms are very strong, although I can’t move my fingers, and I don’t have any sensation below my chest.

How is it for you to work on a computer or even make something to eat?

I can write on a computer, just slower than healthy people can, and I can basically even manage washing the dishes. It all just takes much more time. I’m currently living with my girlfriend, who cooks for both of us – she moved here to Leeds to be with me in August. It would be much more difficult to live here alone.

Is your girlfriend Russian, Estonian or Scottish? 

She’s Estonian and a physical therapist by profession. We met when I was in Haapsalu, going through my rehabilitation programme.

As a neuroscientist, what kinds of possibilities for recovery do you see for yourself?

It’s no secret that miracles can’t really happen: the possibility that something might spontaneously get better is very small, maybe just one per cent. Somehow I have managed to accept that. The only hope would be to regenerate the spinal cord and maybe down the line that will be possible. Stem cells are a very promising area of research and one potential opportunity, but so far no functional solutions have been found.

Of course, my dream as a neuroscientist is to find a way to improve the lives of people with spinal cord injuries. More specifically, a lot of the work is targeted at making wheelchair bound people walk again, but that isn’t the highest priority. Hand function improvement is actually more important, as well as helping people in that situation gain control of their excretory system again.

While before the accident thinking about what to focus on in my research was quite a headache, I’ve now thought about how for me as a scientist, the potential area to focus on is precisely these kinds of issues.

Are you an optimist?

Oh, I’m the biggest optimist you’ll ever meet!

East or west?

West.

Beach or forest?

Forest.

What time of day do you like?

The morning.

What would you change in Estonia?

The structure of social and medical services should be more transparent, so that people with disabilities could be better aware of all the services and possibilities. Also, all public institutions and eateries should be wheelchair accessible.

Apples or oranges?

Oranges.

Checks or stripes?

Checks.

What’s your motto?

Never have plans for the future as you never know how things will turn out.

Posted in Fellow
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