Perfecting the surgical art

  • December 14, 2011
Perfecting the surgical art

Olympia Papachristofi's research looks at ways of improving the surgical success rate.

How do you know when a surgeon has perfected a new procedure or when they are still learning?

It’s an issue that is vital to surgical success rates, yet Gates scholar Olympia Papachristofi [2011] says there is no hard data on the subject.

She plans to provide that data.

Olympia has just started her PhD in Biostatistics at Cambridge.

Her research focuses on how doctors performing surgical procedures learn. “It is probable that surgeons will get better as they do more of the same operation, but I want to establish a statistical method which will show when a surgeon is still learning and when they have perfected a procedure,” she says.

Olympia says most clinical trials tend to ignore the learning aspect of doing surgical procedures. “Mostly,” she says, “surgeons are given some training and it is assumed they learn the procedure and all operate at the same level. In most cases that is not what happens, but there is no way of determining when they have performed enough surgery to have reached the perfect level of knowledge they need.”

Olympia was drawn to biostatistics because of her love for maths, but her desire to make a practical difference.

“Statistics was a part of maths that was more easily applicable to real life and not so abstract. You can see the results of your actions which gives you an incentive to work,” she says.

Biostatistics gave her the opportunity to apply statistics to the medical field and to have a positive impact on health outcomes.

Before starting her PhD she did her masters at Cambridge in Pure Mathematics, but took only statistics modules.

As an undergraduate at Imperial College London she did a general maths degree, but had already graduated towards statistics by her second year.

Olympia was not always interested in maths, however.

Born in Cyprus, her mother is a teacher of ancient Greek and Latin and her father teaches economics at high school. She says: “I always thought I would be more like my mum and into languages, history and writing.” Indeed until she was 13 or 14 she did not like maths at all. However, she was inspired by her O Level maths teacher – she studied for her O Levels and A Levels in the afternoons after school as she was interested in studying at a UK university as her older brother, an electrical engineer, had done. Nevertheless, when she applied for university Olympia, a keen dancer who has done Greek and Cypriot dancing at school and university, was still not sure whether to study modern languages or maths.

Once she discovered statistics and its application in the real world she embraced the subject and hopes that after she finishes her PhD she will do research for her country’s ministry of health or for the first medical school that is about to open in Cyprus.

Picture credit: Apple’s Eyes Studio and

Latest News

Gut bacteria links to immune responses in the brain

Bugs in the gut may hold the key to protective immune measures in the brain which could have implications for diseases such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, according to a new study led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Zachary Fitzpatrick. A paper based on his PhD research has recently been published in Nature and it highlights […]

Exploring the social barriers to take-up of green technology

How can rural communities be encouraged to take up green energy solutions? A new study co-authored by Gates Cambridge Scholar Ramit Debnath investigates the social barriers to uptake of household appliances fuelled by green energy. Based on research on more than 14.5K households in rural communities in Rwanda, the study, published in Renewable Energy, found […]

A new technique to decode the way the nervous system works

How do the billions of neurons in the human brain work together to give rise to thought or certain types of behaviour? A new study led by Gates Cambridge Alumnus Eviatar Yemini [2007] outlines a colouring technique, known as NeuroPAL (a Neuronal Polychromatic Atlas of Landmarks), which makes it possible – at least in experiments […]

An innovative approach to plant protection

Shauna-Lee Chai is passionate about working on wicked problems, about using her entrepreneurial skills to improve the lives of others and about seeing the big picture, something she says her experience as a Gates Cambridge Scholar contributed to. Her expertise is in invasive plant species and for three years she was Board Director of the […]