At the age of 25, Dr Cecilia Kwok was one of the older students at Duke-NUS Medical School. While she initially found it hard to make the adjustment from working as a research assistant to becoming a full-time student, she was able to persevere because, as she says, “being a doctor has always been my dream”.
Now 37, the associate consultant at Singapore General Hospital’s (SGH) psychiatry department studied at Raffles Junior College before heading to Davidson College in the United States in 2001. Two years later, she enrolled at Central Queensland University in Australia, graduating in 2005.
Dr Kwok, a Singaporean, first worked as a lab technician, and then a research assistant, at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine’s Department of Paediatrics.
“I conducted research in childhood leukemia, looking into ways of detecting very low levels of cancer cells in the blood and bone marrow,” she said.
“While I was working as a research assistant, I was offered an opportunity to embark on a PhD in the research I was doing. However, I was determined to pursue my earlier goal of becoming a medical doctor and I rejected the offer and instead applied to Duke-NUS.”
In 2007, after eagerly waiting for the school to open, she enrolled at Duke-NUS as part of its pioneer cohort of medical students. “I think being a mature student, in terms of experience if not in age, is an asset in medicine. It helped me understand patients better,” she reflected, adding that her most memorable experiences of medical school came from her team.
Said Dr Kwok: “We studied together and argued with one another. While we learnt medicine, we also learnt to work together as a team.”
DELVING INTO MENTAL HEALTH
Dr Kwok drew deep from her own experiences when it came to choosing her specialty, psychiatry.
She explained: “I struggled with some problems in university that derailed the path I had envisioned for myself, and it made me realise how important mental health is. This explains my interest in adolescent and young adult psychiatry.”
Dr Kwok conducts research at SGH on subjects such as eating disorders among young adults and the mental health of junior doctors. She also works with the SGH Burns Centre on psychiatric trauma in burn patients.
Dr Kwok is heartened that her juniors at Duke-NUS are now championing mental health awareness through the “I’m STEADY Lah” project. In collaboration with other healthcare organisations, this community service project aims to promote public awareness and tackle social stigma of mental health issues among young adults in Singapore.
As a visiting associate consultant at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital’s Department of Psychological Medicine, Dr Kwok coaches students in the course of her work, and hopes that her intervention can help them continue successfully on their chosen life paths.
Whether she is treating patients or doing research, she believes that her education at Duke-NUS has taught her to focus on what is most important – people.
“What I remember most about medical school are several inspiring and amazing tutors from various disciplines who taught me to see the person behind the patient,” she said.
ON A MISSION
After graduating from Duke-NUS in 2011, Dr Kwok embarked on charity work in the region. She has been to Cambodia twice with Project Sa’Bai, a student-led medical overseas community involvement project.
Last year, she went to Cox’s Bazar, a town on the south-east coast of Bangladesh, with the Singapore Red Cross. She is also involved in the ASEAN Regional Mine Action Center, which trains healthcare professionals in psychiatric interventions for landmine victims.
Said Dr Kwok: “My charity work started as a way to expose myself to different environments while helping those in need. However, in the process, I found myself – who I am, what my values are. I gained much more than I gave.”
For those who are interested in taking up medicine, Dr Kwok said it is important to be sure of what you want.
“It is an arduous journey, both physically and mentally,” she said. “If it is your dream, do apply. Duke-NUS gave me my dream.”
Find out more about Duke-NUS admissions here.