Saturday, August 20, 2016

Everyday Inspirations #6

“So what do you like to do?” 

“Oh I want to do [insert specialization or sub-specialization here]”. 

“I mean, what do you like to do for fun?” There is silence then a wry smile. 

“I used to love mountain climbing…” 

“That’s so cool!” 

“But I don’t have time for it anymore.” 


“You’ll understand when you start working.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I have had this conversation. We each have a limited amount of time and energy to fulfill a lifetime of responsibilities. Choices have to be made and things sacrificed along the way. Often the first things we let go of are our loves and passions- the ‘frills’ of life. Slowly at first, in ways we don’t even realize. But what if these are the things that make us happy- that give us the energy to tackle the challenges we face every single day? Can we really afford to give them up?

Photo credit: Matilda Aquila Chia

One of the things that I truly admire about today’s guest is his dedication to both his passions and responsibilities. Kai Wen is a 5th year medical student- like all his batch mates, he is expected to be in training. Not just to pass his finals, but to take his place in the ward as a doctor next year. Somehow, Kai Wen manages to fulfill this duty while staying true to his other love in life- music. Since teaching himself beatboxing in 2007, he has not looked back, performing several times a month (locally and internationally), going on tour, conducting beatboxing workshops, judging national beatboxing competitions and even working on vocal arrangements for local musicals/television shows (full bio here)!  The comment I most often get from those who know him is ‘how does he do it?’. I am curious too. 

Although he would be the first to insist that the balance he has struck is far from perfect, I think many of us have been struggling to find any balance at all! So if you are in the same camp and find it hard to hold on to what you love in the face of your other responsibilities, do read on :)

Kai performing a gig at Singapore's Esplanade Theater 
(Photo credit: Alvin Ho, Positron Productions)

1) What are some of your priorities and passions in life?
One of my priorities is people, and to that end have made a resolution to make time for friends, while also trying to participate as much as I can in senior-junior teaching within medical school, such as CSFP (a mentorship program that teaches clinical skills to the juniors). 

I also volunteer with an amazing program run by MINDS which sends trained 'appropriate adults' to accompany police detainees, victims or witnesses to their police interviews if they are suspected of having mental health issues (eg. intellectual disability/autism spectrum disorder).

Another priority is of course medical school; it is truly a privileged position and a debt to society to be in medical training and I therefore hope to become a skilled and compassionate doctor, which has to start by putting my medical education first. On the other hand, some of my passions include music (particularly a cappella, vocal arranging and beatboxing), and music education.

2) How do you juggle your passions and priorities? 
I guess perhaps I’m lucky to be in a unique situation where performances tend to be at night or on weekends, and school (for now) largely happens on weekdays, so that naturally reduces the number of clashes compared to people who might be working in a different industry. Otherwise, it's also a matter of discipline (which I’m still working on!) in recognizing that as a final-year student studying should be my main focus, and hence I try to spend most of my spare time reading and revising. 

Further, carefully weighing the pros and cons of all gigs which come my way is important; I’m not above taking leave from school for certain shows where I can afford to, but I won't hesitate to turn down a gig if it will clearly interfere with my learning. For example, this year I was offered performance opportunities in Taiwan and India for great festivals which I really wanted to accept, but due to clashes with final exams and student internship (where I would expect to have a lot more responsibilities), I unfortunately had to decline.

Kai judging the beatboxing category at Singapore's National A Cappella Championships (Photo credit: Martin Karnolsky)

3) Have you ever burnt out? How do you cope with/ prevent burn out?
One instance of burnout which I experienced was in 2011 when I competed in a national beatbox battle, and ended up doing worse than I’d hoped. I think I took the judges' comments quite self-critically; subsequently I questioned why I had put so much effort into practicing my craft with so little to show for it, and contemplated giving up on beatboxing.

In retrospect, I think burnout occurs when one is either physically or mentally fatigued, or both, and in this case I guess I got around it with the encouragement of close friends as well as a change of mindset, that there was so much more to learn in order to improve myself.

4) Do you experience self-doubt about your choices? How do you reconcile these doubts?
I guess self-doubt is pretty much a constant in almost every musician who isn't immediately 'successful', due to the seasonal nature of music work, so I’d have to say yes to this question. Over the last few years, there have been months where I’d be doing two to three gigs a week, and then other months with completely no work at all. In such times it'd be inevitable to begin questioning my dedication to doing music, and if my time and effort could be better spent on other pursuits instead. 

I think I deal with this by keeping busy with both my own music projects as well as schoolwork, and I am always grateful for occasional undeserved kind words of encouragement from my friends (and sometimes complete strangers) which make everything worth it and keep me going.

Kai in Los Angeles with Andrew Kesler (middle) and Avi Kaplan (right). Kai was there for A Cappella Academy Retreat, an audition-only summer intensive programme, where he got the chance to record backing choir vocals for Pentatonix.

5) Have you had to give up anything along the way? Any regrets?
I think early on in chasing a music career I quite unfortunately neglected the importance of keeping friends close to me, and I didn't (and still don't) have much of a social life; for one, I spend a significant proportion of my time with friends from my a cappella group, who have made it in their own musical careers and are huge inspirations, but as a result I barely spend any time with peers my age. Yet certain trade-offs like these do need to be made in order to progress in an industry like music, just as personal sacrifices need to be made to be a doctor. I don't regret it though; I feel extremely lucky to have been able to join a well-established a cappella group way back in 2012, which meant for the most part I didn't have to worry too much about the finances of being a starving musician, and could therefore afford to experiment more in terms of starting out as a solo artist.

6) Are there still things you wish you could do? Why have you not gotten around to doing them?
There are plenty! I wish I could learn or immerse myself in various things, including musical theatre, jazz arranging, languages, and audio production. Perhaps because med school and music work are practically my life now, I haven't really been able to do these things, mostly because expert guidance is required to learn most of them and the time which that requires isn't entirely compatible with everything else I do right now, but occasionally I try to teach myself through books and online resources like coursera.

Kai performing a Multitrack A Cappella of Gentle Bones' 'Save Me'

7) Looking forward, how do you hope to balance your passion for music with your work as a doctor?
I do want to keep doing both for as long as I can; although I might tail down my involvement in some music activities, and scale down on larger projects, I’m hoping to keep pushing myself and working hard in both fields. That said, while work will come with significantly more responsibility and accountability than school, and I’ll probably have less control over how my time is spent, role models such as Dr. Sydney Tan (music director for a good number of National Day Parades, last year's SEA Games, and practicing doctor no less) whom I’ve had the absolute privilege of working with several times through my a cappella group Vocaluptuous, help me to keep hoping that a dual career in medicine and music are wholly possible.

8) There are many who have given up what they love because they need their time/energy for other responsibilities (work, school, family etc). What advice do you have for them?
I would say it's important to find out what you love and what you're good at. They mightn't always be the same thing, but when they do overlap that's when you'll find yourself seemingly able to work at it tirelessly, even with everything else that's happening in your life. 

And don't obsessively compare yourself with how other people in the same field are doing; as long as you put effort into what you love when you can afford it, even if it's the littlest bit, you're still progressing and that's what counts eventually.

Thank you for sharing your passion with us!

Kai doing what he does best- Beatboxing 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Everyday Inspirations #5

Today we speak to Valerie, a young entrepreneur, about having the courage to chase your dreams. At 22, she has already been involved in 9 start-up companies (one of which she helped co-found) and is working on setting up her own social enterprise. Speaking to me over Skype from Silicon Valley (where she is completing a prestigious entrepreneurship programme), what stood out to me most was her unwavering belief in her vision of ‘doing good’.

Whether you are still studying, a fresh graduate, thinking of a career change or simply stuck in a rut, I encourage you to read Valerie’s fresh take on everything from how to score your first job without the requisite (and ironic) prior experience, to making your own opportunities and dealing with failure.

1) Tell me about the projects you have been involved in. How did you get the opportunity to work on them?
I’ve interned and helped out with different start up organisations, namely social enterprises, non-profits, an accelerator, an incubator and a venture capital firm.

Most of them were self-sourced through word of mouth from friends, networking at events and social media. For some, I asked if they had an opening. For others, they were looking for someone so I joined on board.

How did the opportunity for the company you co-founded come up?
I met one of the other co-founders at a conference and found out he was just starting out with this idea of his. 
"I messaged him afterwards saying ‘hey! I have some experience interning at a social enterprise and I think I can help you out in these ways. Would you be interested in going for this particular opportunity together?’"
After that, we just kept working on the idea and on other competitions together.

How often do you get a positive reply from a company?
In general, it’s easier if the company is already looking for interns or help, and I got more success that way. But in the Bay Area (San Francisco especially), I received quite a number of rejections- maybe 1 out of 10 would work out because of the sheer number of peers who are interested in similar opportunities.

How do you deal with rejection?
I think one thing is you have to accept that rejection is part of the process. Always expect that there will be a low rate of acceptance when you are looking for good opportunities. But there are so many different types of opportunities, so it is important to not give up hope and to keep trying.

 Valerie and Chris Anderson, Curator of TED

2) How did you decide where your passion lay in business?
Since I was young, I have always wanted to help people and do something good for society. Later, I found that I was also interested in businesses and start-ups. I thought it would be good to combine the two and have a business that would do social good in the future.

Also, interning in a social enterprise (The Thought Collective) allowed me to see that this way of doing business was possible and inspired me to do the same.

Were there any points where you felt unsure if this was the path you wanted to take?
"I think even at this point, I’m not entirely sure what my path is. One thing I do know is that I want to be a global leader in doing good but the exact way by which I want to do so is unclear. I think it is ok to have that amount of uncertainty."
It is hard as someone who is young and not entirely exposed to different experiences to know what you want. So I think just having a general goal and trying out different pathways and experiences are good ways to allow you to have a clearer picture in the future.

3) Did you/your parents have any concerns about your wanting to set up your own company?
Definitely. Because I was doing this while in college, my parents were really worried it would affect my studies. They were afraid I was spending too much time on it and that it would cause me to be really stressed.

For myself as well, there was uncertainty whether this was something that was worth it, whether it would do well and if I would succeed.

How did you convince your parents?
It was gradual. I told them I thought this would help me to learn and meet new people, that I was accomplishing things through this and also helping other people. I’m not sure if I have managed to completely convince them but I told them ‘I can handle this!’

How did you reconcile the doubts within yourself?
For myself…hmm…I think God has really helped me throughout all this. It has been hard sometimes but I just have this faith and trust in God that this is all for a purpose.

Valerie at Facebook HQ

4) What are some challenges you have faced? How did you overcome them?
The first is ‘overloading’- having too many things going on at once. Especially in my second year of college, I had almost 10 commitments! It was very stressful and exhausting juggling everything. What has helped me is always being part a team so that you have people supporting you. Communication is important as well- just letting people know what you can and can’t do. Have a support network of friends who can help and manage your time according to what is most urgent- there has to be a give and take.

Second, there is a lot of uncertainty and failure involved, especially when you are doing something new. You need to learn to be ok with not being able to control and know everything. Don’t be too afraid of making mistakes and failing- every time I have gone through failure I do feel somewhat like it is the end of the world but really, it is not. It is extremely tough and demoralising but it is temporary and you CAN pick yourself up. When you have had more failures, you realise you have the capability of getting though them- in a sense, it gets easier because the belief and knowledge that you can handle it helps you in overcoming it faster.

The third challenge is rejection. When you are starting a start-up and you are young, you will face a lot of ‘No’s from people. And when you are applying for internships or programmes you will get many rejections as well. My advice for that is don’t let that stop you- just keep going for more. 
"Don’t take it too personally. It is a numbers game- you will always get rejections but the more you do it, the more ‘Yes’s and successes you will get."

Valerie and Dave McClure, Founder of 500 Startups

A lot of people face the difficulty of not being accepted to their first job/internship because they don’t have previous experience but if you never get that first opportunity then how can you get experience?
Maybe you could start small first. I have found that smaller organisations are more willing to take you in even when you lack experience. So diversify your search.
"It’s also good to have a personal connection with someone in the team and show your willingness to learn. Don’t just apply through the traditional job portal- send them a personal email and ask them to meet up for coffee. Show them that you are inquisitive and passionate."
You may not have the particular skill that they want but you may have related skills that will help you in learning the needed skill. There have been times where I did internships where I didn’t know anything before hand and just learnt on-the-go. If you show that you have the right attitude, they might still take you on.

You can also just start learning it on your own- you don’t always have to have practical experience. Learn it online and create your own projects where you can display that you have developed that skill. One example is marketing. You might not have any marketing internships but if you start your own blog/ page, create a following and learn how to post, you can show that you have developed that skill! This can work for software engineering and coding too.

Valerie and Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup

5) What resources/support have you found useful?
Online self-improvement articles help a lot- I like those on and these two articles, by Elle Luna and Erno Hannink, about finding your purpose. I also enjoy reading blogs about business (Paul Graham and Sam Altman) and personal development (Mark Manson and Oliver Emberton).

Family, friends and mentors have also been helpful.

How did you identify your mentors?
A number of mentors happened to be people I have worked with in internships- they were basically my bosses. Others are just people who I met along the way who are nice and who I’m friends with. It is important to be friends as well. To keep it going you have to half be friends and half be seeking advice from them.

Valerie and James Beshara, CEO of Tilt, during her internship

6) You have an excellent website. How do you go about ‘branding’ yourself?
For one thing I don’t think I have a super strong brand. I think I’m kind of a little bit all over the place. (laughs)

I brand myself in the sense that I have one common vision in my life. Right now, I’m also clear that what I am trying to do is learn more.

Try to show how the work you are doing is useful- highlight your achievements and the skills you have learnt. See if there is a way you can find a coherent narrative of why you are doing the things that you are doing. And show that you are active and going about doing a lot of different things. Make it public.

7) What advice do you have for university students who are uncertain of which direction to take?
For undergraduates, I advise trying out lots of different things so you can get a sense of it and see if you like it.

For graduates, I recommend meeting people who are in the jobs/fields you are interested in and asking them how it is like. Get a very detailed sense so you don’t go into it just having a vague notion. And do research online as well. One good resource guide is it has a lot of advice about how to choose a good career for yourself that also makes a social impact.

You should make learning one of the key criteria when choosing a job. Find a job that allows you to be able to learn a lot of things versus one that just has a good pay check or seems stable and prestigious. 
"The older you get, the more you need to have stability. But when you are younger, you can afford to focus on your learning."

Valerie with the other interns at Tilt 

Thank you for sharing your insights with us!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Perspective #5

To the child whose parents are fighting, I hope these words help you.

You are not alone

I know it may not feel like anyone can understand the burning feeling in your heart right now; that no one has had to live through the same pain, sadness, anger and frustration that you are going through. And that may be true. Everyone’s family situation is different and even if you have siblings, your experiences of the same trauma may not be the same.

But what many of us have been through is the fallout- the disillusionment and disappointment that come with realising that our parents are not infallible. We have looked up to them as idols and they have proven themselves deeply flawed humans, just like the rest of us.

We lose hope and look at our friends’ families, who seem to always have it together, to always be happy. It is our shameful little secret and we can’t talk about it- we have to protect our parents. Besides, the world wouldn’t understand anyway.

What I would like you to know is that all of us put up a front. We hide our deepest secrets and pain from the world. You would be surprised at how many of your friends and random strangers on the street have felt as you feel today. Some, like you, have recently had their world crash down. Others have been living with this reality since they can remember. And all offer camaraderie.

Talk to them. Your friends, siblings- anyone that you have wanted to confide in but have felt that you could not. There is no shame in admitting your worries. You are brave to be seeking help. They may not be able to offer all solutions and you don’t need to feel obliged to act on any of their well-meaning advice. Simply wash in their concern and understanding of your dilemma. Take comfort in their stories of shared distress.

You have been hurt by the people you love the most but that hurt is not a cross you alone must bear. Share your vulnerabilities and you will feel stronger for it.

It isn’t your fault
Many times, we take the blame on ourselves. It must have been the added stress of children that made them fall apart. If you know of something that you are doing that is contributing to their conflict, then, by all means, stop it. But most of the time, their quarrels have absolutely nothing to do with us. If you look at the crux of the fights, their unhappiness usually stems back to an age-old contention, something that they have not been able to reconcile from the start. It could be incompatible principles, upbringings or world views, but whatever it is, it has been brewing since the ‘I do’. Nothing you have done or could have done would have brought these 2 people down a different path than they find themselves on today. They have advanced each step through the choices they both have made and you cannot give yourself the credit of having made those decisions for them. Free yourself from the undeserved guilt.

Their happiness is not your responsibility

The urge is there, to fix it, to make everything better again. The duty is strong too- I am their child, I should help. These are all valid emotions. Naturally, we hate to see people we love at odds. Naturally, we want to pull out the thorn that is causing our own distress. But the situation is often much more complicated than that. At times, there seems to be no amount of mediating, paraphrasing, affirming and setting straight that can save this drowning ship. Just when you think the storm has settled down for a while, another wave crashes in and topples the whole boat. It is maddening. It is disheartening. All these failed missions eventually begin to affect your mood. You can’t concentrate in school/ at work, every happy moment seems to be tinged with sadness and there is just an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and despair.

You dream of packing your parents off to a marriage counsellor, of pulling a ‘Parent-Trap’ on them and making them see that they do still love each other. Of doing one last, final, desperate act- something, anything- to wake them up from this nightmare, to have them hug and laugh and admit they were foolish, that it was all a mistake.

But it never happens. And slowly, you begin to lose hope that it ever will. This stalemate has become your new reality and there is a dead feeling of resignation where there used to be hope. You have failed in your mission. You don’t even try anymore. Your tired, glazed eyes take in scene after scene of dissatisfaction and something begins to glow from the embers in your chest. It is quiet at first but will soon grow into a raging furnace. It is resentment. At the two people you love the most, whom you gave your hopes to for protection and who have thoughtlessly ripped them apart. Why can’t they just grow up? Stop being so selfish. Can’t they see what this is doing to the rest of us? If they are so unhappy maybe they should just- just… why should I have to deal with any of this? It isn’t fair. You come to the conclusion that your parents are utterly irresponsible and that you must be the martyr that will spend the rest of his/her life trying to salvage them.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. You don’t have to go through this torture of bubbling hope, herculean strain, crushing disappointment and weary resentment. It is a toxic cycle bound to repeat itself into oblivion. Instead, admit from the start that there is nothing you can do. This is difficult, because it means also admitting that you have no control over what is happening. But that is the truth of the matter. You have no control over your parent’s actions and decisions. They are two fully autonomous adults- when they choose to wound one another in harsh words and thoughtless actions, they do this in full awareness of the consequences. Sometimes, we must accept that other people’s battles are their own to fight, no matter how painful it is to watch from the side lines.  As our parents did for us, we must trust in the necessity of letting them learn from their own mistakes. Their struggle is their own and it is unrealistic to think otherwise.

As in all things, we only have control over one person- ourselves. We may not be able to choose our circumstances but we can choose our response. We can decide that no matter how bad the chaos gets around us, we will strive to remain calm. We can set boundaries as to how much we are willing to get involved. This is not selfishness. Give counsel when it is sought, gently steer them when the opportunity arises, but do not expect to be able to rescue them from capsize; do not be affronted if your advice gets lost in their old ways.

This distinction between their responsibility to their marriage as a couple and your responsibilities to them as their child will save you a lot of heartache and headache. There will still be times of emotional fluctuation when they hit a rough spot, but you will no longer feel as though you too are at risk of drowning every single time. 

They don’t love you any less

This is a question that floats in our subconscious, afraid to breach the surface. Most times, we may not even be aware that we have this fear. If they are so unhappy, do they regret getting married? Perhaps they regret having us as well. Are we stopping them from pursuing their own happiness? These are the worries that pile up in our mind long before the D word is ever mentioned. It makes us hold back when speaking to our parents, hesitant to look them in the eye, afraid to know the answer. In everyone’s flurry to reconcile the two warring parties, the third internal battle often goes unnoticed.

We build our identities on ‘stable’ structures- our family, friends, religion, work etc. When any of these begins to crumble, so too does our sense of self and self-worth. We need assurance from our parents that though the bond between them is changing, their love for us as their child has not. It is something most parents would rush to assure once asked, but may neglect to emphasise otherwise.

So if you are in doubt, just ask. It is better than the uncertainty of not knowing. But chances are you are worried over nothing. 

They may or may not still love each other
This is a something we may blurt out to one party or the other in the lull of a silence. Do you still love Mum/Dad? It seems vital that we must know because if the answer is yes, there is still hope. If the answer is no, then all is lost. But the reality is far from that simple. They may still love each other and choose to separate, or they may no longer feel any love, yet stay in the marriage.  Emotions are so convoluted that they may not know at all. Or perhaps they have been avoiding this issue and your question has forced them to re-evaluate their relationship. When we as children ask this question, we must understand its limitations and be prepared for the consequences.

It’s okay to talk about divorce

The D word is scary. When thrown out in a fit of passion, it is meant to wound- and it does. But more terrifying still is when it is spoken in seriousness. It means a whole other world that is mutually exclusive to the one you now reside in. It is final. When Divorce happens, your current reality ceases to exist.

Except that that is not entirely true. Divorce does not have to be a mythical horror, spoken about only in shadows. If we do that, we accord it more power than it should have. It is a big decision, to be sure, and one that should not be approached lightly. But precisely because it is such a big decision, we should discuss it properly with all parties involved. And that includes us, the children.

Often times, parents are afraid to broach the topic because they do not want to make us worry. But we can see exactly what has been going on for months or years and the toll that it has taken on all parties - we are not blind.

We love our parents, we don’t want them to be miserable- we want them to be happy. And if this means discussing ALL the options that are on the table, then so be it. Just because divorce is discussed does not mean it will be taken. And just because we are open to talking about it does not mean that we have given up hope on their marriage or on them.

Sometimes, all people need is the knowledge that they have the freedom to choose if they so wish. Or perhaps the offered reality of an alternative they have long viewed as their ‘escape’ will not appeal as much as they first thought. Whatever the family decides, it should be done as a whole, with everyone upfront about discussing all options, including divorce.

You are not doomed to repeat their mistakes

It’s not true. Not all marriage has to be like this. Just because your parents have lost the thread at the moment does not mean they were never happy together, that they will never be happy again. Marriage has hope- Love has hope.

It is easy to be demoralised about your own potential, to watch the power couple that has always held centre stage tear each other up and think- what’s the point? If we all end up like this, then what the hell is the point.

Do not allow yourself to fall down this pessimistic, fatalistic well. You are not your parents. You are a different person entirely and you will choose how you behave in the future.

And despite how fruitless it all seems right now, there is a point in all this suffering. You have just had an excellent case study in what not to do. Every little thing that you wish you could make your parents see- store that up in your mental inventory. It is a promise to yourself and to your future partner that you will never repeat these sins against each other. Look into your own heart at the sorrow that is there and swear to your future children that you will never put them through this pain. Mister Auguste Rodin was correct when he said ‘Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely’.

It will pass
I know some days it seems like it will never, ever, end. Either make-up right now or get a divorce already- don’t go putting us through this crap any longer. That is the worse part- the uncertainty, the dread that it might go on forever. But I am here to tell you that nothing remains unchanged. For better or for worse, your family will move forward from its current situation. Whether it is because time has grown over old wounds, age has mellowed them, other priorities have stepped in, they have finally learnt to communicate better or have called it quits, there will be an end to it. Change is inevitable but we are human- we will adapt. 

When the ashes have settled and the smoke has cleared, look out- we will build our worlds again, together.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Everyday Inspirations #4

Today we have the chance to speak to Dr Mo Yin, a senior resident in Infectious Diseases, about the work she did with the World Health Organization in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak. If you are interested in doing overseas aid work, read on to find out about the obstacles she faced and how she stays motivated despite everything.

1) Tell me about your experiences in Liberia  
During the Ebola outbreak, I had the opportunity to work with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Liberia for 1 month, doing policy work on infection control and prevention.

On our first day there, we were woken at 6am for an emergency meeting. A man had escaped an Ebola treatment centre. He was very sick and hence he probably carried a lot of virus. On his way home, he fell off a cab and 2 young men helped him. They later fell sick but not before getting involved in a gang fight where a lot of blood was spilt. The outbreak had just been beginning to settle at this point and we really wanted to contain the area.

Later we visited the surrounding clinics and were surprised to find that despite being 1 year into the outbreak, they still had not implemented proper triaging and quarantining measures. I saw a man who was supposed to be in isolation take a seat amongst a group of women holding their babies.

In Monrovia (capital of Liberia), there is only 1 main road. There are no postal services and no addresses. Only 100 doctors that serve a few million people. An entire hospital of 700 beds may have only 1 doctor!

There were about 70 Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on infection control alone and as you can imagine, the situation was chaotic. Comunication and coordination of efforts were difficult despite the best intentions.

This was the kind of setting that we were met with. Our question was how could we unite everyone’s effort?

With guidance from my supervisors, I came up with an electronic database. We used a very simple online platform- google sheets. The idea being that every time an infection control specialist visited a clinic, they had to have their data entered into these sheets. This allowed us to compare the different areas such that we could easily spot and immediately target what they were lacking eg. personal protective equipment or better training. We could also keep track of how the different clinics were progressing and published this data to the NGOs to make sure they didn’t end up doing double work. All in all, it helped us decide how to allocate limited resources and directed the NGOs where help was needed.

I remember when I first presented it to the NGOs, people came up to me saying that they had been waiting for something like this.

Facilitating an infection prevention and control course to the Liberian county representatives 

Doing a simulation exercise with the National Infection Prevention and Control in-charge at a clinic in Monrovia
“These are the kinds of things that you can only pick up if you are there to see the situation on the ground- it can never be learnt through textbooks.”
2) What made you decide to serve overseas?

I am a big believer in equality. I feel that the most valuable thing to a person is opportunity- the freedom to choose. Regardless of where you are born or who you are born to, it should not limit the opportunities you have and one of the foundations you can never argue with is health. You can argue that they don’t need computers in the mountains but they need basic health care. With good health come opportunities. This was one of the most direct ways that I could offer life to people, so I decided to do medicine. Naturally, I am interested in developing countries because I feel there is a lot of room for empowerment there.

3) How did you decide which niche of overseas work to focus on?

Post-tsunami visit to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, doing post-trauma therapy with the children

Before medical school, I had gone on a few missions trips to China, post- tsunami Indonesia and aboriginal Malaysia. The longest of these was to China for 2 weeks. The main issue I have with these trips is the sustainability or the lack of it. There has to be a long term commitment to be physically there and for me, this is difficult.

So I am trying to fulfil [my desire to help] through other means, like training to be an Infectious Diseases (ID) physician and doing a PhD in infection control research. I believe that influencing policy leads to the most sustainable healthcare outcomes.

4) How can people working on the ground make their trips more sustainable?

It has to be about teaching skills and capacity building. If you are going there to build a school, you might as well teach someone how to build a school instead. It takes a lot of preparation to study what the socio-economic-political setup is in the region before you can deliver what is actually needed. Also, establishing a relationship with the local people is extremely important.

For every overseas trip that you make, it is important to assess the goals first. What can we contribute to the local community? How will it benefit them and ourselves? It is important to build up the skillsets before making the decision to help.

5) Did you have to make any sacrifices along the way?
Doing this PhD is taking time off my training and going out of my comfort zone. Sometimes I wonder what kind of career support I would get if I decide to focus on developing countries and not doing cutting edge science. And my mom is always worried about me being an old maid!

6) What are some challenges you faced on your trip?
It was very difficult to even get to Liberia. I was originally thinking of volunteering with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) but the day I applied, their first international staff got infected with Ebola- so they started declining all international staff. Then the WHO opportunity opened up. I had to convince WHO to take me even though I was not that experienced and had to get approval from all levels- my residency committee, my immediate supervisor/programme director, the hospital CEO, the Ministry of Health…(laughs) my family. Then there were the questions of what if I import the disease? What if I fall sick there? In the end, I was very lucky- my head of department had been there twice and said he would supervise me.

On the trip itself, implementation can be very difficult. The education level and concerns are all different. Cultural differences are subtle but can make a project fail terribly. For example, during the Ebola crisis, vaccines went in to help them. But when we were there, there were signboards saying ‘it’s a conspiracy, they are coming to jab Ebola into us!’ A lot of this suspicion is based on the history of the country.

How do you bridge this gap?
You have to build friendships and trust. You must find the key person, whom the people trust. In certain communities, it may be the religious leader, in others the clinic leader.

7) What keeps you going despite the difficulties?
“I feel that we are all here because we are meant to contribute something. We need to find a sweet spot between what the world needs, what we are good at and what we like. Only when we find that sweet spot can we really contribute.”
I haven’t completely figured out what my role should be. But for me, I like to narrow things down. I first decided that medicine was something I wanted to commit to and then that ID was something that could open doors for me. Going on to do a PhD is simply a further exploration of something that I may be good at.

Of course, there are a lot of obstacles along the way. The more you expose yourself to opportunities, the more fatigue and burnout you face. Many days you have no time for yourself and you will begin to ask- ‘What am I doing?’ But you have to learn to re-prioritize- it is all part of a learning journey.

“What makes a person great is not how successful you are at one thing, but being able to tell yourself at the end of the journey that you haven’t given up- that you are still moving towards your goal.”
8) How do you balance your work and personal life?
Someone once told me- ‘find something you enjoy doing and do more of that’. I really enjoy working with my patient population. Because work makes me so happy, I can put my interests aside for a time and focus on my patients. When work is getting tiring and I need to focus on something else for a while, I will do that.

I used to tell myself that I needed to do one run and one reading session each week but it is really difficult to stick to that. So just do whatever keeps you happy.

9) What advice would you give to someone who is considering doing overseas humanitarian work?
To me, helping people is not about going overseas or doing a project.

“It is about brushing up your communication skills, making a connection with another person or spending that extra hour with a patient that has the potential to change his/her life. It is a lifelong commitment.”
Before committing to overseas work, you need to know yourself, your limits and your family situation. You need to know what the needs of others are before contributing. There is a lot to do everywhere. Even for the people right beside you.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

If you would like to find out more about Dr Mo Yin’s time in Liberia, you can check out this article or this publication