Asia

It’s not too late for them to start a medical degree at this university

One used to have a marketing job. Another has a psychology degree. A third student is a scientist specialising in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in medical research for clinical practice.

They are all first-year students at Duke-NUS Medical School who did not take the familiar route to a medical school. Enrolling in medical school typically means a six-year commitment immediately after graduation from polytechnic or junior college.

For Ms Dana Chow, Ms Edina Tan and Mr Fan Shuyang, they may have realised their medical calling after their undergraduate studies, but that did not stop them from pursuing their dream.

As the only graduate medical school in Singapore and South-east Asia, plus a lot of scholarship and financial aid options, the choice was easy: Duke-NUS Medical School.


Ms Dana Chow’s volunteer work at local charity HealthServe and other healthcare institutions inspired her to enrol in Duke-NUS’ Doctor of Medicine programme. PHOTO: DANA CHOW

Ms Chow, 23, was inspired by the volunteer doctors she met during her work and volunteering stints at local charity HealthServe in 2018 to join the profession.

“At HealthServe, I was struck by the number of migrant workers who faced difficulties in accessing affordable healthcare,” she recalls. “Many continued working despite their illness or pain as they simply could not afford to take unpaid days off to recover.”

Many times, their only access to medical care comes from volunteer doctors offering their expertise and services on the workers’ days off. With her memories of those selfless doctors still fresh in her mind, she made up her mind to become one of them.

“My time at HealthServe gave me the spark, but what ignited the flames was the experience of working in a corporate job that wasn’t my passion,” she says.

The question was, where?

A Singaporean who had spent most of her adolescence in Shanghai and completed her undergraduate degree in biochemistry at Imperial College London, Ms Chow wanted to pursue her postgraduate studies in her country of birth.

More than one pathway to medical school

In fact, Ms Chow was so set on Duke-NUS that she opted for an early admissions decision.

Duke-NUS’ rolling admissions process means that early applications are given a significant advantage. In schools like Duke-NUS, applications are assessed individually as they come in, rather than en masse after a specific deadline.

In order to be considered for early admission, candidates must submit their applications by September – more than four months before the regular deadline of Jan 31.

A select group of candidates will be invited for interviews starting in September, with notification of acceptances as early as November. Early acceptance applicants who have not been notified of an interview will be rolled into the regular admissions pool for review, and notified of their application status.

Ms Chow’s application was in the hands of the admissions office by July 25, 2020 for the AY2021 intake.

“To be honest, I wanted it to be over and done with!” she admits with a laugh. “That way I could focus on what was next while waiting on the outcome of my application.”


While Ms Edina Tan was initially interested in clinical psychology, her experiences in patient care led her to pursue a postgraduate medical degree at Duke-NUS. PHOTO: EDINA TAN

Another beneficiary of the early admissions route was first-year student Ms Edina Tan, a psychology graduate from Yale-NUS College.

Ms Tan, 23, was initially set on pursuing a career in clinical psychology, but perhaps ironically, it was a clinical psychology internship that set her on the path to becoming a doctor instead.

In particular, her time working at an outpatient psychiatric clinic for adolescents gave her valuable insight into the life of a doctor and made her seriously consider pursuing medicine instead.

“I saw how doctors played a uniquely holistic role in patient care and I realised that this was a role I would like to take on myself,” she says.

Classmates with diverse experiences

For students like Ms Tan, the obvious draw to Duke-NUS is its policy of accepting students regardless of the nature of their undergraduate qualifications, with its students’ backgrounds ranging from computer science to history to even engineering.

But what had particularly drawn her to Duke-NUS was the school’s uniquely collaborative approach, a trait she had come to appreciate during her liberal arts undergraduate studies.

Its TeamLEAD philosophy is at the heart of the Duke-NUS curriculum. During what faculty refers to as a “flipped classroom”, students lead seminar discussions, resolve clinical cases in teams and collaborate to find solutions.

“These collaborative opportunities mirror the team-based approach to patient care in an actual clinical setting,” says Ms Tan.

Hearing how set she was on applying to Duke-NUS, her seniors and friends advised her to try her best for early acceptance, which unlike the regular admissions cycle, has no quota on the number of students admitted – giving her a sizable edge.

“I knew that submitting my application early would give me a higher chance of being admitted,” she says.


Mr Fan Shuyang, a Duke-NUS MD-PhD student, plans to use artificial intelligence technologies to advance clinical development. PHOTO: FAN SHUYANG

The other big draw of Duke-NUS is its strong emphasis on clinical research. To start with, the Duke-NUS clinician-scientist philosophy is to combine the best of both scientific research and medical training.

Born in Beijing and raised in Singapore, Mr Fan Shuyang, 24, had briefly considered studying medicine as an undergraduate, but his passion for scientific research led him to study bioengineering at Rice University in Texas.

Bridging the gap between research and clinical practice

As a scientist already heavily invested in research, Mr Fan found himself wondering how he could continue to do so while simultaneously studying to become a physician.

“I wanted to attend a medical school with a strong focus on translational research and clinical innovation,” he recalls.

Duke-NUS certainly fits that bill. The Duke-NUS philosophy is “Clinicians First, Clinicians Plus” and every student must conduct clinical research. Doctor of Medicine (MD) students do so during their third year, while MD-PhD students do so from years 3 to 7 of their programme.

A significant source of inspiration for him has been the institution’s track record of clinicians who have been innovating in healthcare, such as current faculty member Associate Professor Rena Dharmawan, who is also co-founder of healthcare start-ups Privi Medical and Jaga-Me.

During his research, Mr Fan discovered there was a critical knowledge gap between artificial intelligence and its clinical applications.

In his first year at Duke-NUS, he finds himself well-positioned to pursue his extensive research on using deep learning models to detect early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Duke-NUS’ partnership with SingHealth will allow him to advance the frontiers of both artificial intelligence and medicine by putting his research into practice in a clinical setting.

“As a physician-scientist, I will be able to develop data-driven technologies and integrate them into clinical workflow,” he concludes.

Are you considering applying to Duke-NUS? The only graduate medical school in South-east Asia has a rolling applications admission programme to encourage applicants with good credits to submit their application early. Here are tips from current matriculated students:

The application process is just the beginning of a stressful period, so prepare yourself mentally by exercising, eating well, and having fun.

Once you’ve committed to applying, take each obstacle one at a time. Focus on your goal. Don’t let others or yourself stand in the way of what you want in life.

– Ms Dana Chow, first-year MD student, Class of 2025

Get to know the school better by attending outreach events and speaking to existing students before deciding to commit.

In terms of the application process, always be authentic. Take on research projects or volunteer work not just for the sake of boosting your credentials, but because you are passionate about them.

– Ms Edina Tan, first-year MD student, Class of 2025

Prepare your application early. My essays took me a few weeks to draft and polish, and I asked some professors I had worked with for recommendations.

In addition, make sure you understand the healthcare landscape in Singapore, as every country differs in this aspect. This is crucial if you haven’t lived here before.

– Mr Fan Shuyang, first-year MD-PhD student, Class of 2028

  • Duke-NUS’ MD programme accepts applications until Jan 31, 2022. Click here to find out more.

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