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A Yale connection to Thailand—and the King of Siam

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2003 - Winter


When Kanya Suphapeetiporn, M.D., Ph.D. ’02, finishes her pediatrics residency in Brooklyn and heads home to her faculty position in Thailand, she hopes to send some of her best students back to Yale for educational exchanges. If they do come, it will be nothing new: the link between Yale and Chulalongkorn University, where Suphapeetiporn is both alumna and junior professor, has a long history.

It began 20 miles from New Haven, more than 30 years ago. In the late 1960s, Nicholas P.R. Spinelli, M.D. ’44, served as a mentor to a young doctor from Thailand doing an internship at Bridgeport Hospital, a Yale-affiliated hospital where Spinelli was director of medical education. That man, obstetrician Supawat Chutivongse, M.D., went on to become dean of Chulalongkorn’s medical school in Bangkok. Since then, he and Spinelli have worked together to bring a dozen of the school’s strongest graduates to Yale to hone their skills.

Spinelli helped Suphapeetiporn apply to Yale’s doctoral program in the Department of Genetics, where she did research in cancer genetics. Suphapeetiporn plans to set up a basic research lab when she gets back to “Chula,” the university named in 1917 after the beloved Thai King Chulalongkorn, King Rama V. (His father, King Rama IV, was portrayed by Yul Brynner in The King and I.) Spinelli met Suphapeetiporn at the airport when she arrived in 1996, invited her to his home, attended her thesis presentation and watched her graduate last May. Suphapeetiporn enjoyed listening to Spinelli’s stories from a career in medicine that included private practice as an internist, overseeing the Bridgeport residency program and directing alumni affairs for the School of Medicine.

Reached by telephone after a long night on call at the State University of New York Medical Center in Brooklyn, Suphapeetiporn says that Spinelli’s dedication to former students is exemplified by the fact that he’s kept in touch with her dean at Chula for more than 30 years. “I am so impressed that they still keep in touch,” she says.

While at Yale, Suphapeetiporn spent most of her time in the lab and the library, but she also enjoyed New Haven’s first-rate pizza and New England’s hiking trails. Two years ago, Yale’s community of Thai students, numbering about a dozen, gained a new member: a colleague of Suphapeetiporn’s from Chula, Atapol Sughondhabirom, M.D. He is doing a postdoctoral fellowship in psychiatry, studying the genetics of drug addiction. Sughondhabirom and his advisors have a grant to train Thai students in the genetics of psychiatric disorders, further strengthening the connection between Yale and Chula.

Spinelli says he is impressed that every Thai student he has known has returned to Thailand. Planning to follow suit, Suphapeetiporn is eager to get home. “I think,” she says, “that I can do something useful.”

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