Professor Dr. Phrabhakaran Nambiar


Prof. Dr. Phrabhakaran A/l K N Nambiar


Prof Dr Phrabhakaran Nambiar , on behalf of MDSA, thank you for accepting our invitation to be our special guest today for ‘Interview with the Experts’. Can you tell us a little bit about where you come from and what pinned your interest in dentistry?

I grew up in Klang. The reason why I took up the career of dentistry was due to the dental treatment I received  when I was in Form Four, I visited a famous dentist in Klang named Dr Khoo which  was started earlier in 1957, the year I was born. Hence, I was amazed by this profession and was triggered to get myself into this career. So, I did my undergraduate in Manipal. That five years was tough and the struggle was real as it was solely based on self-learning. Upon finishing, I was assigned to work in Sarawak for two years. I have always had an interest during  my undergraduate study on a subject called Forensic Dentistry. Since the 4th year in my undergraduate, I wrote to a doyen of forensic odontology who is Prof Gunnar Johanson, a Swedish forensic odontologist. He wrote to me and recommended me to further my studies in PhD in Karolinska Institutet. He also gave me another option which was University of Adelaide. Then, I went into private practice for three years. This helped to set me in the path in obtaining my bachelor and masters in Forensic Odontology at Adelaide University.  I am very fortunate to have received the Adelaide University Scholarship during my study in Adelaide. After 5 years, I returned to serve my country although I was offered a job there. Soon, I joined University of Malaya as a lecturer in Oral Biology. After working here for five years, I was interested to further my studies. Dato’ Prof Dr Hashim Yaacob, who was the dean of UM at that time, encouraged me to take up Radiology. I was glad to be awarded a scholarship to further my studies in Dental Radiology in University of Western Cape and Postgraduate Diploma in Maxillofacial Radiology in University of Stellenbosch. In the end, I managed to get a master and a post-grad diploma from two different universities at the same time within one year. I am grateful to Prof Yaacob’s advice as I now have two specialities and both complement each other.

Can you tell us your role in UM?

I started as a lecturer in Oral Biology Department. When I came back from my studies overseas, I was requested by the Dean to start Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology Unit. Initially, it was served as a servicing unit. Soon, I developed it into an academic department to include formal teaching, research as well as service. Besides, I also helped the hospital in investigating forensic cases and developing radiology sessions. The dental radiology unit was well equipped and I am glad to say that UM is the first to develop CBCT in Malaysia. Few years later, the unit was upgraded to Radiology, General Dental Practice and Special Care Department. Two years ago, the department was closed and it was amalgamated with Department of Oro-maxillofacial Surgical & Medical Sciences. I am very proud to be one of the two Asians to be awarded the Fellowship from the  Royal College of Pathologist Australiasia in the specialty of forensic odontology. I am pleased to have helped brought up two specialties in this country – forensic dentistry and radiology.

Prof, you have two specialities – forensic dentistry and maxillofacial radiology and was among the first in the country to specialise in both fields of studies. Can you briefly tell us what is it and why are you interested in these fields? At the same time, could you walk us through the interesting events throughout your specialities?

I love investigations, involving cases and disasters and both my specialties are in investigations. To me, this is like a community service, serving the community. I am pleased to say that both the specialties that I took up are recognised by the government.

I was involved in most of the investigations in this country such as identification of dead bodies in MH17, Tawau plane crash, Canny Ong’s murder, and so forth. The latest case which I was involved was about the identification of Australian dead bodies in Terendak Military Cemetery, Malacca in May last year.

Back in 2015, I was involved in the identification process for the MH17 Malaysian victims. There were 2 teams: one team of 10 people in Netherland who were involved in postmortem whereas another team of 15 people in Putrajaya were in charge of ante-mortem. The postmortem team examined the victims and did chartings for them. However, I was involved in the ante- mortem team, and I must say that it was tough and challenging indeed. Within one week, we had to collect all the dental records with the help of our network of dentists, and uploaded them into the software to be sent to Netherland.  It was done  with gathering passenger details from MAS, interviewing family members and consulting our colleagues based on the data we have. Then, the information from the dental records were transcribed onto to a Plass Data Software and sent to Netherlands. Then, the software compared the post- and ante mortem data and showed plausible matches which were subsequently examined manually in detail before final identification.  It was challenging but the result was rewarding because we managed to identify the victims based on the dental records.

What are the steps in nurturing a forensic dentist and characteristics should he/she possesses?

If you are interested to involve yourself in forensic odontology, you may as well be aware what it takes to be one. First of all, a forensic odontologist must have a wide spectrum of knowledge in general dentistry, oro-craniofacial anatomy, radiology, oral pathology, restorative procedures and dental materials as well as vast dental practice experience.  In cases involving a deceased person in a disaster, accident etc, He/she may be involved with the identification of the individual and provide descriptions and interpretations of dental and facial injuries.

In cases of domestic violence, or physical or sexual abuse, a forensic odontologist will be consulted by medical personnel to give an opinion on bite-mark patterns. From the evidence, he/she has to determine whether the pattern is truly the result of human biting. The report prepared by him/her may be used in legal proceedings.He/she must have a good control on his emotions and feelings and always be sensitive towards cultural and ethical issues when performing an examination of the victim or deceased.

A forensic odontologist is also obliged to uphold the reputation of the profession by being confident, composed and ethical throughout his career. His/her role revolves around legal authorities and experts from other areas of forensic science and he must establish and maintain good rapport with them. Professional conduct and interpersonal skills are essential to deal with people of different backgrounds. He/she needs to have an effective communication style, be able to accept peer review, and work together as a team member that consequently leads to mutual agreement and understanding. It is also of importance for a forensic odontologist to liaise with the police investigators to maximise dental evidence collection.

What is the role of forensic dentist in crime investigations?

Besides the identification of deceased people, a forensic dentist also involve in the investigation of bite marks caused human and animals. Moreover, a forensic dentist also helps in age estimation of the victims. For instance, we take dental radiographs  of the burnt bodies and examine them to find out whether any fillings were done on the victims. The recent case was about a Malaysian boy born without any identification. But I managed to estimate the age by collaborating the information from the radiographs with dental age estimation surveys.

Prof Dr Phrabha, what is your advice to the current dental students?

Every case in forensic odontology is challenging. Only when you are passionate towards this specialty, you can overcome all the challenges. It is not very rewarding in terms of money. However, it is very rewarding in gaining new experiences as it is beyond drilling, crowns and bridges because you work alongside with law, emotions of the victims as well as the bereaved relatives. Most importantly, you must have a good grasp of your own emotions, be compassionate and maintain empathic interaction with the victims’ next of kin.

Forensic dentistry is all about community service as you are not only helping the police in law enforcement, but also the welfare of the community. In my opinion, I can see a potential growth in radiology and forensics and I am happy I have played  a significant role in in the development of both these dental specialties in this country.