A professional athlete, a research fellow and a mother

How three unique routes merged into one path of becoming tomorrow’s doctors

By Dionne Seah, Writer

Dr Timothy Tay, Dr Matae Ahn and Dr Jiang Yuheng
Newly graduated doctors (L-R): Matae Anh, Timothy Goh and Jiang Yuheng who celebrated this milestone together on 28 May


Attired in scrubs and going around the wards, one junior doctor might—at first glance—look much like the next. But what sets Duke-NUS graduates apart from their peers is that they bring with them a kaleidoscope of perspectives, with many having pursued other careers and vocations before answering to their true calling in medicine. 

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Take the Class of 2022 for example. Among the 53 graduates, some worked in law, finance or engineering before they started on their medical careers. One had even been a professional athlete. But even among those who have spent their lives dedicated to the pursuit of their dream to become a doctor, their routes to graduating from Duke-NUS are all but conventional. 

Get to know some of the Class of 2022 and their unique stories: 

Going full circle—from being a professional athlete to giving back as a sports doctor

Timothy Tay

Before Dr Timothy Tay from the Class of 2022 came to Duke-NUS, he spent his youth training up to six hours a day, five to six days a week to be able to compete for Team Singapore at the international level. After being well taken care of by doctors who specialised in sports injuries, he wondered: how could he give back to his fellow athletes?

Read more about him here.

Preparing to become a clinician-scientist—giving more to research before becoming a doctor

Matae Ahn

Having joined Duke-NUS as an MD student, Dr Matae Ahn from the Class of 2022 didn’t consider becoming a researcher himself until he started his rounds on the wards and had questions that couldn’t be answered. It was then that he pondered: what more could he do as a doctor?

Read more about him here.

Making the ‘right’ time—becoming a mother while completing her MD-PhD amid COVID-19

Dr Jiang Yuheng

When Dr Jiang Yuheng from the Class of 2022 began her journey to become a doctor, she was prepared to have a lot less time to herself, especially once rounds on the wards began. But she learnt that life might have different plans when one falls in love. So she asked herself: how could she make all of it work?

Read more about her here.

Going full circle—from being a professional athlete to giving back as a sports doctor

Dr Timothy Tay in action during an international competition, representing Team Singapore

Dr Timothy Tay in action on the parallel during an international competition, representing Team Singapore // Credit: Dr Timothy Tay

Like many students at Duke-NUS, Dr Timothy Tay walked a very different path before starting his journey as a medical student. And it all started with table tennis.

“My sister and I would go to Bishan Sports Hall for table tennis,” Tay reminisced. “We would be at the top floor playing table tennis, but we had to take turns doing drills, so I’d look down to the ground floor where gymnastics was going on. And it just looked so much more fun downstairs. I saw people jumping into the pit and tumbling here and there. And I just wanted to be a part of that.”

On the day he decided to join gymnastics, Tay told his parents about what he had seen. To his joy, they felt just as excited and enrolled him into those classes. Then, he delved head-long into his newfound love.

It wasn’t long before his coaches spotted his potential for gymnastics, asking him to put in a few more hours a week to see where it would go. A few more hours a week became trying out for local competitions. With his initial successes, Tay started to train more days a week, eventually going for regional—and then international—competitions.

“Throughout all these trainings and competitions, I was quite prone to getting injuries, so I’d get sent to the Singapore Sports Institute for physiotherapy,” Tay said. “There was a lot of exposure to sports medicine and that’s what sparked my interest in medicine.”

But Tay did not just focus on gymnastics. In fact, he became adept at juggling schoolwork, tuition, learning to play the piano and the violin and his extracurricular activities at the gym.

“Honestly, sometimes, I really don’t know how I managed everything,” Tay laughed. “It got quite crazy sometimes. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my parents’ constant support and encouragement.”

Because hard work didn’t deter him, Tay went on acing his exams, which eventually secured him a spot at King’s College of London, where he pursued a degree in biomedical science after completing 22 months of national service.

But he knew that he couldn’t be doing so many things all at once forever.

“When I was doing my degree, I asked myself whether I wanted to continue becoming a professional athlete or go down the medical route. I ended up choosing medicine because it felt right—like I would be going a full circle in the sense that I started off as an athlete and would end that by becoming a sports doctor who can help other athletes and contribute back to them what I’ve learnt throughout my own sports career.”

Dr Timothy Tay

And so, Tay began his journey at Duke-NUS after going through the School’s rigorous admissions process by not only excelling in his Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) but also standing out during the interview process.

“I still tried to do both gymnastics and study in my first year,” he admitted with a chuckle. “But gymnastics demanded too much of my time, and as much as I loved it, my studies were more important to me. So, I finally stopped gymnastics.”

But Tay still finds time to explore other interests in life that help him to unwind.

In his second year at Duke-NUS, Tay entered an Instagram giveaway and won two bags of specialty coffee, alongside a free one-hour Zoom session on how to brew his own coffee. After attending the virtual class, he fell in love with the art of brewing coffee, prompting him to reach out to his peers at Duke-NUS to start a coffee interest group at the School.

“Coffee is such a huge part of medicine,” Tay said. “Healthcare professionals are always working so hard, and they’d always perk right up after having a cup of coffee, so sometimes I’d make my own coffee and bring it to them in the wards. Coffee seems to be one of the things that makes the rougher days easier.”

Now that Tay has graduated, he has begun his housemanship at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, where he is attached to the Department of General Medicine. Once his housemanship is completed, he hopes to specialise as a sports doctor and give back to his fellow athletes.


Preparing to become a clinician scientist—giving more to research before
becoming a doctor

Unlike most MD-PhD students at Duke-NUS who apply for the MD-PhD programme on the get-go, Dr Matae Ahn began his journey only as an MD student, with the aim of becoming a psychiatrist or a neurologist who can help patients get through tough times by directly interacting with them.

But during his second year, while he was doing his clinical postings, Ahn noticed something.

“I enjoyed interacting with patients and learning clinical skills and knowledge, but at the same time, I realised there were many diseases with limited understanding and many treatments with significant limitations and serious side effects,” Ahn reflected. “Some of my clinical mentors commented that I was inquisitive about things we have yet to understand or solve, and that made me want to help address those gaps.”

Surprised by his colleagues on his birthday, Dr Matae Ahn celebrates his special day in the office
Surprised by his colleagues on his birthday, Dr Matae Ahn celebrates his special day in the lab // Credit: Dr Matae Ahn

Driven by his desire to help patients, he started to consider a more research-intensive training—by embarking on a PhD. But which area should he focus on?

“There were so many potential topics that I could go into, but I was really open-minded about it. I was looking for exciting research that I could fully invest my time into and, more importantly, a great mentor whom I could receive my research training from,” said Ahn.

While Ahn carefully ruminated over which field he should go into, he continued to attend talks from different professors that the Education team at Duke-NUS regularly schedules for their MD students.

During one of those sessions, he met Professor Wang Linfa from the Emerging Infectious Diseases programme.

“On that day, Prof Wang was giving this talk about bats, the viruses that they carry and what we can potentially learn from them in terms of improving human health,” said Ahn. “In the field, his nickname is ‘Batman’ because he’s just that renowned for the work that he has done with bat viruses.”

His curiosity piqued, Ahn approached Wang after the session with a few questions. A few questions turned into an engaging discussion between the two of them—so much so that Wang invited Ahn to his office and the conversation continued rolling for a good few hours.

And that was how Ahn knew that research about bats was the kind of exciting and novel research that he had been looking for.

“That chance meeting and the following chat on the Friday night is historical and changed the career path for both of us,” said Wang. “For Matae, it was a huge gamble for a MD to study bats, which paid off handsomely considering his achievements so far and the bright future as a clinician-scientist he is about to embark on. For me, Matae’s work significantly increased my own confidence to further our research focus on bat immunology and consolidated our international leading position in the field. I was extremely lucky to have him as my first PhD student at Duke-NUS!”

Although Ahn wasn’t the first student to switch from being just an MD student to an MD-PhD, he was the first one who continued his research training as a research fellow after completing his PhD.

“Before the end of the final year of my PhD in 2017, I was ready to graduate from it,” Ahn said. “But at the same time, I had a major translational project that I could not give up and really wanted to push it to the next level.”

Passionate about his research, Ahn sought ways to stay on. Although it could become more challenging for him to resume his medical studies after completing his research, Ahn’s mind was set.

“I received a tremendous amount of support from Prof Wang and the School,” Ahn said. “There were many processes that we had to go through to get approval for me to stay on, but we got through it and that allowed me to continue my research for two more years.”

Ahn became the first MD-PhD student at Duke-NUS to stay on as Research Fellow in the Emerging Infectious Diseases programme, where he delved further into what makes bats special as long-lived healthy animals and how they can translate the lessons learned from bats to treatments for human diseases.

By the end of his two years as a research fellow, Ahn won the Young Investigator Award from the International Association of Inflammation Societies and co-led the Young Clinician Research Peer Support Group at the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre.

His research projects focussing on bat immunity and translating discoveries into potential therapeutics have led to multiple first-author papers, including top scientific publications such as Nature, Nature MicrobiologyProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Journal of Experimental Medicine, as well as two filed patents that could lead to new therapeutics based on his studies of immune responses. 

 “By that point, it felt like the right time to go back and complete my medical studies. And, as expected, it wasn’t easy going back to the medical side of things after being so immersed in research. But my new classmates and everyone around me was so helpful and supportive that I pulled through.”

Dr Matae Ahn

Proud to graduate with the Class of 2022, Ahn has begun his housemanship at the Singapore General Hospital. Although he is excited to be a junior doctor and looks forward to the challenges to come, he knows that he’ll never lose his passion for translating research into clinical practices that will benefit humankind.


Making the ‘right’ time—becoming a mother while completing her MD-PhD amid COVID-19

Dr Jiang Yuheng (right) with her husband and daughter at a day out cycling

Dr Jiang Yuheng (right) with her husband, Liu Shiyang, and daughter at a day out cycling // Credit: Dr Jiang Yuheng

Even before Dr Jiang Yuheng joined Duke-NUS, she had completed her undergraduate degree in natural sciences at Cambridge University as an A*STAR scholar and served a year as a research officer in the labs at A*STAR.

During her undergraduate years, as Jiang studied neuroscience—a rapidly developing field of study both then and now—she became fascinated by how challenging it was to study the brain. In this area, there were so many unanswered questions, all pertaining to how humans think, how they feel and how they process their emotions.

In fact, she wanted to delve into research so much that she hadn’t considered becoming a doctor. At first, that was.

“While I was working in the labs at A*STAR, I realised that we don’t get to see how the work that we do gets carried over into clinical applications,” Jiang said. “In science, we’re always chasing after results and once those results get published, we move on to the next study. And it made me think, ‘How can I see whether my research actually helps people?’”

That led her to apply to Duke-NUS, which offers Singapore’s only MD-PhD route, bridging research and medicine.

With her background in neuroscience, Jiang was keen to specialise in neurology or psychiatry when she went into medicine. And for her PhD, she already had it laid out: she would join Associate Professor Antonius VanDongen’s lab, where she could learn more about neuroscience and study the mechanisms underlying the processes of learning and memory.

But it seemed like life had more plans for her along the way.

As Jiang embarked on the eight-year MD-PhD programme, it wasn’t just knowledge about medicine or friendships that she gained during the first few years. Along the way, romance also bloomed between her and her classmate, Liu Shiyang, who also started his MD-PhD journey at Duke-NUS in 2017.

“I first met her in 2013 on Applicant Day,” said Liu. “I remember how chill she was when we were having group discussions while everyone else was so nervous. She remained that way even when we began our first year and there was so much to take in. She’s also always kind to the people around her. But we became closer in Year Two, when we started going to the same church and eventually started dating near the end of that year.”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the shores of Singapore in 2020, Jiang’s life continued on at full speed.

Just like Jiang had hoped, upon starting her PhD, she joined VanDongen’s lab. Here, she began research work on the Arc protein, which is only produced in active brain cells and is involved in how the brain stores long-term memory.

“Jiang was given a very challenging project, addressing how memories are encoded and stored in large networks of brain cells. This required her to master several high-level technologies and develop new analytical methods. She persevered wonderfully and discovered novel mechanisms underlying the process of memory formation that were published in two manuscripts, which allowed her to successfully defend her PhD,” said VanDongen.

Even before her graduation, Jiang would go on to become the first author of two papers—one published and the other one currently under review.

But that wasn’t all. In 2019, with her research in full swing, the then second year PhD student and Liu tied the knot. And in the following year, the couple welcomed a beautiful baby girl.

“With both of us doing our MD-PhDs and knowing that there’d be research and then housemanship down the road when we graduated, there wasn’t really a ‘right’ time for us,” Jiang laughed. “So we decided, why not now instead of later when it would be almost impossible to have much time on our own? We’d make it the ‘right’ time for us.”

After a year of leave to take care of her daughter, she returned to Duke-NUS to finish her final year of MD studies. Meanwhile, inspired by Dr Matae Ahn’s path, her husband has stayed on as a research assistant and will be graduating next year.

“I was having a chat with Matae, who graduated at the same time as me, and we were reflecting on how it was really tricky to go back to the clinical stuff after being so focused on our research for a few years,” Jiang said. “But our classmates really helped us to pick up where we left off and made it so much easier for us to come back.”

“We also realised how much our PhD experience helped us in terms of building soft skills since we had to do so many presentations during our PhD years. It really helps when we’re talking to patients and their loved ones.”

Dr Jiang Yuheng

Having graduated, Jiang has begun her housemanship at Sengkang General Hospital, where she is doing her rounds in the orthopaedic department.


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