Unlike most MD-PhD students at Duke-NUS who apply for the MD-PhD programme on the get-go, Dr Matae Ahn began his journey only as an MD student, with the aim of becoming a psychiatrist or a neurologist who can help patients get through tough times by directly interacting with them.
But during his second year, while he was doing his clinical postings, Dr Matae noticed something.
“I enjoyed interacting with patients and learning clinical skills and knowledge, but at the same time, I realised there were many diseases with limited understanding and many treatments with significant limitations and serious side effects,” Dr Matae reflected. “Some of my clinical mentors commented that I was inquisitive about things we have yet to understand or solve, and that made me want to help address those gaps.”
Driven by his desire to help patients, he started to consider a more research-intensive training—by embarking on a PhD. But which area should he focus on?
“There were so many potential topics that I could go into, but I was really open-minded about it. I was looking for exciting research that I could fully invest my time into and, more importantly, a great mentor whom I could receive my research training from,” said Dr Matae.
While Dr Matae carefully ruminated over which field he should go into, he continued to attend talks from different professors that the Education team at Duke-NUS regularly schedules for their MD students.
During one of those sessions, he met Professor Wang Linfa from the Emerging Infectious Diseases programme.
“On that day, Prof Wang was giving this talk about bats, the viruses that they carry and what we can potentially learn from them in terms of improving human health,” said Dr Matae. “In the field, his nickname is ‘Batman’ because he’s just that renowned for the work that he has done with bat viruses.
”His curiosity piqued, Dr Matae approached Wang after the session with a few questions. A few questions turned into an engaging discussion between the two of them—so much so that Wang invited Dr Matae to his office and the conversation continued rolling for a good few hours."
And that was how Dr Matae knew that research about bats was the kind of exciting and novel research that he had been looking for.
“That chance meeting and the following chat on the Friday night is historical and changed the career path for both of us,” said Wang. “For Matae, it was a huge gamble for a MD to study bats, which paid off handsomely considering his achievements so far and the bright future as a clinician-scientist he is about to embark on. For me, Matae’s work significantly increased my own confidence to further our research focus on bat immunology and consolidated our international leading position in the field. I was extremely lucky to have him as my first PhD student at Duke-NUS!”
Although Dr Matae wasn’t the first student to switch from being just an MD student to an MD-PhD, he was the first one who continued his research training as a research fellow after completing his PhD.
“Before the end of the final year of my PhD in 2017, I was ready to graduate from it,” Dr Matae said. “But at the same time, I had a major translational project that I could not give up and really wanted to push it to the next level.”
Passionate about his research, Dr Matae sought ways to stay on. Although it could become more challenging for him to resume his medical studies after completing his research, Dr Matae’s mind was set.
“I received a tremendous amount of support from Prof Wang and the School,” Dr Matae said. “There were many processes that we had to go through to get approval for me to stay on, but we got through it and that allowed me to continue my research for two more years.”
Dr Matae became the first MD-PhD student at Duke-NUS to stay on as Research Fellow in the Emerging Infectious Diseases programme, where he delved further into what makes bats special as long-lived healthy animals and how they can translate the lessons learned from bats to treatments for human diseases.
By the end of his two years as a research fellow, Dr Matae won the Young Investigator Award from the International Association of Inflammation Societies and co-led the Young Clinician Research Peer Support Group at the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre.
His research projects focusing on bat immunity and translating discoveries into potential therapeutics have led to multiple first-author papers, including top scientific publications such as Nature, Nature Microbiology, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Journal of Experimental Medicine, as well as two filed patents that could lead to new therapeutics based on his studies of immune responses.
Proud to graduate with the Class of 2022, Dr Matae has begun his housemanship at SGH. Although he is excited to be a junior doctor and looks forward to the challenges to come, he knows that he’ll never lose his passion for translating research into clinical practices that will benefit humankind.
This story was first published in MEDICUS 2022 Issue 3. https://www.duke-nus.edu.sg/medicus/2022-issue3/tomorrows-doctors/#two
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