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Leadership in Action

When Associate Professor Tan Hiang Khoon was awarded the AM-ETHOS Academic Mentor Development Fellowship back in 2016, he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect as he hadn’t personally met his assigned Academic Mentor before. “I certainly was looking forward to learning new things, and that would have been good enough for me,” he recalls.

After breaking the ice with Professor Allan Kirk, the Surgery Chair at Duke Health, however, Assoc Prof Tan knew this Fellowship was going to far exceed his expectation.

Prof Kirk was generous with his time and knowledge from the get-go with monthly Skype calls, during which no topic (from day-to-day issues to big-picture questions) was too big or too small for discussion. 

And during Assoc Prof Tan’s week-long visit to Duke Health, Prof Kirk provided unfettered access to his work. Sitting in on discussions with everyone from clinicians and human resources to C-suites and educators, Assoc Prof Tan very quickly saw the varied nature of his mentor’s work.

“It gave me a glimpse of the life of an Academic Chair of an established renowned academic surgical department. His openness [to sharing] demonstrated his trust in me, and it built in return my trust in him,” he says.

A leader who walks the talk

Assoc Prof Tan was also struck by Prof Kirk’s leadership style and personality, describing him as thoughtful, sincere, methodical and someone whose words and actions are consistent.

“Seeing Allan in his element and the snippets you learn when you meet his co-workers, you can tell he has led the department with distinction,” Assoc Prof Tan says, “and it gives you an idea of why a very effective leader can be tremendously beneficial to the system.”

Forming a firm partnership

The Fellowship has since sparked off collaborations between the two surgical departments in our Academic Medical Centre and Duke Health, and opened new doors for learning for other staff.

“On top of reciprocating visits, we’re setting up collaborative projects helmed by principal investigators from both sides,” shares Assoc Prof Tan. For a start, he roped in a dozen research members for a joint research symposium in 2018 – the presented themes translated into projects that competed for grants.

Rewards of mentorship

Having been both a mentee and mentor many times in his career, Assoc Prof Tan firmly believes continuous learning from a role model is key to progress.

“In medicine, whichever field we are in, we wouldn’t be anywhere without mentorship,” says Assoc Prof Tan. “For me as a surgeon, I could never learn to put a knife on a patient, dissect a tumour or identify vessels without a mentor physically standing beside me, taking me through each and every operation until such a time that I’m ready to be independent,” he adds.

And now being a leader in Academic Medicine and after his interactions with Prof Kirk, Assoc Prof Tan has kicked his mentoring skills up several notches. He now thinks about how to help younger colleagues progress in their career, embrace certain principles to solve problems that may be unrelated to their clinical skills.

Last of all, the time spent with Prof Kirk has also sharpened his vision for Academic Medicine. Says Assoc Prof Tan, “I’ve always been a strong believer in Academic Medicine, and now I have a better sense of how it can be implemented, and also see how a good leader can have a very positive impact [in this aspect].”

And to help future awardees make the most of their Fellowship, Assoc Prof Tan stressed that this shouldn’t be taken as an ad-hoc experience. He says, “It’s important to see this as a multi-year journey, because this is what we should try to build. I took up the Fellowship to learn new things. I have since gained a mentor and a friend.”

Associate Professor Tan Hiang Khoon Academic Medicine Journey

Driven by the desire to know how things can be done better, Assoc Prof Tan’s first foray into multi-disciplinary work was an attempt to improve the level of clinical delivery and support to young cancer patients and their parents. Together with a few friends, Assoc Prof Tan founded non-profit organisation Working in Aid of Leukaemic Kids (W.A.L.K) in 1992, later renamed Children’s Cancer Foundation.

Later on, he took 3.5 years off clinical work and pursued a doctorate in basic science research. During this time, he gained great admiration for scientists and saw the impact that fast-moving science can have on medicine.

For his achievements today, Assoc Prof Tan credits the good teachers and mentors he has learned from over the years. He hopes to pay it forward by passing his know-how to the next generation of medical practitioners. 

About our awardee

Associate Professor Tan Hiang Khoon
Academic Chair, SingHealth Duke-NUS Surgery Academic Clinical Programme
Chairman, Division of Surgery and Surgical Oncology, Singapore General Hospital
​Academic Mentor
Professor Allan Kirk
Chair, Department of Surgery, Duke Health