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Nurturing Future Clinician-Scientists

The year was 1996. Prof Koh Woon Puay, Director at the Centre for Clinician-Scientist Development (CCSD) at Duke-NUS was then a young doctor with a promising clinical career ahead. And much to the shock and bafflement of people around her, she decided to stop practising as a doctor but to pursue a research career instead.

“People said it was a pity,” laughs Prof Koh, who graduated top of her class with rare honours in 1992. But having had deep interest in the physiology of health and pathology of disease in school, and lured by a science doctorate scholarship that NUS was providing, the foolhardy doc knew in her heart she had to make a drastic change in her career path and pursue her aspiration to becoming a scientist. 

It was a time when Academic Medicine was not heard of in Singapore, and researchers and doctors stayed in separate worlds. And even though she had little lab experience, Prof Koh forged ahead anyway.

When she returned to Singapore in 2001, after obtaining her PhD in Cellular and Molecular Immunology in University of Sydney, she became part of a very small community who could speak the “dual-language” of science and medicine.

Her postdoctoral mentor and founding principal investigator of the Singapore Chinese Health Study, Dr Mimi Yu, convinced her that her background and training both as a doctor and scientist would be well harnessed in the field of epidemiology – a field she’s still passionate about now. “It was like the stars were aligned,” was how Prof Koh described her entry into epidemiologic research when she returned to NUS. She is grateful to have been mentored by Dr Yu and Prof Lee Hin Peng, then Head of the Department of Epidemiology in NUS, to lead the population-based Singapore Chinese Health Study as the principal investigator.

Fast-forward to today, after achieving more than 300 published papers and over S$15 million dollars in research funding, the clinician-turned-scientist, who is now a Prof in the Health Services and Systems Research in Duke-NUS, is paying it forward by raising the next generation of clinician-scientists in her role as the Director of Duke-NUS’s CCSD.

Leading with mentorship

At the CCSD, which officially started in June 2018, Prof Koh has met nearly 200 clinicians (and counting) across all Academic Clinical Programmes (ACPs) and played the role of career mentor to those among them who aspire to incorporate research as a significant part of their career. Each person receives one-on-one coaching from Prof Koh, during which she develops an individualised development programme. She organises programmes for them to receive mentoring from senior scientists in our Academic Medical Centre. Plus, each trainee is assigned a personal manager to help with administrative matters like grant applications.

Prof Koh also communicates closely with clinical heads and ACP leadership so trainees can develop their research aspirations – usually within 12 to 18 months – in a supportive work environment.

Understanding the struggles of straddling two careers, Prof Koh always advises pragmatism. “If you want to be a successful clinician-scientist, you need to have a strategy. Choose a niche, a sub-specialty, and be focused. Otherwise, you will end up mediocre in both clinical work and research,” states Prof Koh who dedicates her time to helping trainees combine their strengths and enjoy a thriving dual career.

Bringing best practices to CCSD

When Prof Koh wanted to launch new creative programmes within the CCSD, she knew straightaway that the AM-ETHOS Academic Mentor Development Fellowship would help.

On a visit to Duke Health some years ago, she had met her AM-ETHOS mentor Prof Ann Brown, the Vice Dean for Faculty. Through Prof Brown, she came to know of the K Club (a grant writing programme) and Academic Leadership, Innovation and Collaborative Engagement, or what’s known as ALICE (a leadership development programme for women), which are signature programmes under Prof Brown’s purview.

“When the Fellowship came around in 2016, I said I wanted to go [to Duke] and bring good practices back,” she recalls. With Prof Brown’s generous sharing, what resulted after was the set-up of ACE-in-Grants – inspired by the K Club – and the Women in Science (WinS) Network – inspired by ALICE.

Both programmes, having launched successfully, enjoy the strong support of the leadership in Duke-NUS and SingHealth. In particular, the first cohort of WinS (a group of 25 women) has managed to build friendships and solidarity in an industry where female medical researchers remain under-represented.

At the heart of her work, Prof Koh is dedicated to seeing budding clinician-scientists succeed and hopes to inspire others to join her in this work, saying, “To quote, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded”. This is exactly how I want to lead my team at CCSD to do – empowering budding clinician-researchers to achieve success in research – and to do so by helping one at a time.”

About our awardee

Professor Koh Woon Puay
Director, Centre for Clinician-Scientist Development, Duke NUS
Academic Mentor
Professor Ann Brown
Professor of Medicine; Obstetrics and Gynaecology
Vice Dean for Faculty, Duke Health