The psychiatrist who does stand up

He discovered performing at medical school in India and, as a PhD student at Cambridge, began to devise his own material. Armed with his ‘baloney detection kit’, Hisham Ziauddeen uses stand up to demonstrate the folly of bogus science. He’s performing at the Cambridge Science Festival.

Hisham Ziauddeen holds the floor (Nick Saffell)

Stand-up comedy is a place to explore the weird stuff your brain comes up with — it’s wondering aloud as performance. Comedy’s a medium in which you can consider and challenge ideas, or just be surreal, in a way that you couldn’t in normal conversation, at least not a second time.

I’m a lifelong fan of science fiction and comics. Carl Sagan was a major influence. His ‘baloney detection kit’, from Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, was a crucial formative element of my adolescence, probably second only to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I was about 16 when I decided I wanted to do psychiatry. I read a bit of Freud and was completely fascinated. There isn’t a lot of Freud in psychiatry and it took 20 years and a chat with my senior colleague, Sir Steve O’Rahilly, to articulate exactly why Freud had inspired me. What intrigued me was Freud’s idea that mental processes could be understood within the framework of the biology of the brain. Self-awareness is a very desirable, if not essential, trait in a psychiatrist.

I went to Christian Medical College (CMC) in Vellore, south India, and studied medicine. After working reasonably hard in my first year I then bumbled through the rest of it, till I got to do psychiatry. I’ll admit to a brief dalliance with forensic pathology, which I hark back to at times when I think I’m being an informed reader of crime fiction.

At medical school I discovered performing. At CMC Vellore it was only sketches and monologues. I did my best to faithfully reproduce some classic material from Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson. I was never fazed by going on stage and that helped a great deal when I started doing stand-up. If you can perform in front of 900 of your fellow students and your teachers, all of whom know you and many of whom probably don’t like you, you can cope with anything. On stage at least.

My first impression of Cambridge was “I love this place! Now what can I do to stay here?” I did my PhD at Clare College and it was then that I started trying out my own comedy material. I did a few sets at the Footlights Smokers and I still do the odd set on the college circuit. Science stand-up comedy at the Bright Club in Cambridge allows you to do a unique form of scientific critique.

During my PhD and psychiatry training I met a lot of inspiring people. I’d mention two in particular: Paul Fletcher (Department of Psychiatry), my supervisor, and Steve O’Rahilly (Institute of Metabolic Science). They’re both brilliant scientists and wonderful human beings. What I really admire is their collaborative approach to science and the way they’ve built up so many other people along their distinguished career paths.

My doctoral research looked at how the brain’s reward system handles food rewards. I worked under Paul Fletcher in the then-developing field of health neuroscience, looking at the neuroscience of health-related behaviours, specifically eating behaviour in the context of obesity and understanding how we are motivated towards food and make decisions about what to eat.

As a research side-line, I looked at the concept of food addiction. This is a popular but seriously flawed idea that has unfortunately captured a lot of scientific and public interest yet not yielded anything useful. I have written four papers and performed three Bright Club sets criticising the subject.

In my current role I’m both a clinician and a researcher. Quite frankly, it’s an amazing job to have. In the Fletcher lab in the Department of Psychiatry I study the neuroscience of psychosis. I’m also a consultant psychiatrist in early intervention in psychosis and in liaison psychiatry in Addenbrooke’s. Both roles have their own fascinations, plus they feed into each other. Can’t ask for much more.

I’m really interested in psychosis and very keen on taking what we’re learning from neuroscience back into the clinic. I’m also very interested in understanding why the medicines we use to treat these conditions cause weight gain as a side-effect; this is major problem and one that we don’t quite know the cause of.

My main scientific motivation is creating a legacy of people. You’re only going to be around for a short time, you may only be able to have so wide an impact, and your science may be disproved some years down the line. Train people to be good scientists and good human beings, and they’ll hopefully do the same. They’ll spread your impact if you’ve got enough right, and disprove you if you got something wrong.

Cambridge has a flat organisational structure despite being embedded in tradition. There are so many brilliant people around and even as a very junior person you can reach out to experts in completely different fields and have a conversation. That makes Cambridge unique and very precious, a veritable human library that you have a card for.

I have a two-year old daughter who is absolutely lovely and brilliant! She’s made me a more interesting person by association. I do hope she’ll be scientific even if she doesn’t do science. I will, of course, encourage her to learn maths, coding and martial arts. I think these will be valuable skills for life in general and the forthcoming apocalypse in particular.

Dr Hisham Ziauddeen is a Senior Clinical Research Associate in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge. On Thursday (16 March 2107) he’s taking part in stand up comedy organised as part of Cambridge Science Festival. This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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