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Being a Clinician, a Scientist, and a Resident

Clinical work is demanding, and those who take on research work on top of it must really be stereotypical "Type-A" characters, right? Our two National Outstanding Clinician Scientist (CS) Resident Award winners, Dr Ku Chee Wai from Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Dr James Mok from Plastic, Reconstructive & Aesthetic Surgery, put a few misconceptions to rest, and give us some insights into what motivates them to chug through the busyness of being a CS Resident.


Dr Ku Chee Wai (left) and Dr James Mok

1. Congratulations on winning the National Outstanding Clinician Scientist Resident Award! How has being a Clinician Scientist (CS) Resident nurtured your passion to pursue research?

Dr Ku: I have been interested in obstetrics research since I was 18. Because SingHealth is an Academic Medical Centre that focuses on excellence across the three areas of clinical work, research and education, I could pursue my interest in research and education, and also improve the lives of our patients. I was able to do this through SingHealth Residency's CS Resident track, which caters to Residents who are passionate about both clinical and research work.

Dr Mok: The CS Residency has provided many ready resources to support my research in medical device innovation.  It has allowed me to seek out mentors, identify my research niche and establish a network of collaborators and mentors.  I was able to tap on the engineers from the Medical Technology Office, advisors from the Office of Intellectual Property, and a collaborative mentoring network at Duke-NUS Medical School.  All these were crucial in helping me to gather expertise from diverse areas to make my project a success.



2. What is the most challenging aspect of being a CS Resident?

Dr Ku: Juggling time – because just like other residents, we only have 24 hours a day. I am very appreciative of the protected research time offered under the CS Residency track. That has been very helpful in allowing me to advance my research.


Dr Mok: For me, the challenge lies in living up to the expectations of the CS Residency Programme and of the colleagues who have to cover my clinical duties while I am doing research. I find it useful to set realistic weekly goals to move the project forward. I think of it as working on precious "borrowed" time. When it is time to showcase departmental research, I just need to step up and deliver. That is the time to repay the trust that everyone has had in me.


3. In your opinion, what traits should CS Residents possess?

Dr Ku: The time demands on CS Residents can result in erratic schedules, so they need to have drive and passion to keep going in their research journeys. CS Residents also have to be persistent and resilient, as research is akin to a marathon and not a 100 metre dash. This is especially so in translational research, which takes years before your work is published!


Dr Mok: Tenacity, patience, and the desire to shoot for the moon; dream BIG. You need to believe in yourself and your ideas. You might have to contend with your colleagues, grant committees, and possibly equivocal results from your project. Keep pushing until you have exhausted every option.


4. Share with us a misconception associated with being a CS Resident.

Dr Ku: "It is too challenging to balance clinical work and research, so CS Residents end up doing well in neither". I believe CS Residents serve to bridge the gap between clinical and scientific work, and can thrive in both areas. We occupy a unique niche to facilitate the crosstalk between these two communities, to drive research work from bench to bedside.


Dr Mok: "CS Residents can automatically generate publications". Often, the CS Residency years set up the building blocks for a long-term research career. This might not translate to immediate, tangible results.


5. Being a CS Resident means learning to balance clinical work with research. How have you achieved this?

Dr Ku: It is impossible to do things alone. Assemble a good research team and seek out nurturing mentors. Good team members are supportive and can help to advance research through collaboration. Mentors are inspirational and can offer advice on how to refine ideas and ensure the research is patient-centric. 

Dr Ku (second from the left) with his mentor, Assoc Prof Tan Thiam Chye (fourth from the right) and his research team.

Dr Mok: Be prepared to work longer and harder than your colleagues. You are first and foremost a medical doctor. Hence you should aim to be a competent clinician first, then you will have the latitude to pursue your research. The passion you feel in following your dreams will help sustain you. I would also advise maintaining a vibrant social / family network. They can be a good sounding board for testing wild ideas, but more importantly, they will keep you in touch with the world outside medicine.


6. Do you have any tips for those of us who want to start pursing our research interests? Where and how should we begin?

Dr Ku: Identify knowledge gaps in clinical care and formulate research questions to address these problems.


My question was formulated from the experience I had in the emergency unit for pregnant women. They come to us with bleeding in early pregnancy, and all they wish to know is whether the baby will survive this episode of threatened miscarriage. Back then, the common answer would be "We do not know". Not satisfied with that as an answer, my research team spent the next few years seeking a solution. This formed the basis of our research work and we are now able to use a single blood test to triage women at high or low risk of miscarriage. So dare to dream big and persevere to achieve your goals!


Dr Mok: Find mentors who have done it before; they will provide invaluable advice. I was inspired by my first teachers in Stanford, Uday Kumar and Chris Shen. One is an interventional cardiologist who has successfully transcended out of medicine into device innovation, and the other is a venture capitalist who can tell me in the gentlest way if my proposed project is rubbish.

The SingHealth Duke-NUS collaboration provides an excellent launch pad towards fostering your budding research network. Feel free to send out introductory emails—these emails are like cold calls to the girl you wish you could have dated. You might not get a reply, but chances are they will lead you to find others along the way that can help. Also, keep your mind open—you never know where an opportunity may lead you!

Dr Mok (first from the right) with his clinical innovation team, a multi-disciplinary gathering of doctors, an engineer, a scientist and a business and regulatory expert.