An Interview with Daphne Chia, a final year medical student at Cambridge
Q: Tell me a bit about yourself!
Daphne: I’m currently a final year medical student at the University of Cambridge. I’m from Singapore, and was part of the Rhythmic Gymnastics national team before University. I was really lucky to have been part of the first RG team to represent Singapore in the Commonwealth Games, and was also the first Singaporean at the individual RG World Championships back in 2013. My other hobbies include contemporary dance, and more recently, Ballroom and Latin dance. I’m also part of the university air pistol team, and occasionally dabble in some backstage theatre. Like any other Singaporean girl, I love bubble tea and making matcha lattes.
K: Wow! You’ve really managed to do a lot of things with your time.
Daphne: Yes! I’ve managed to do quite a few things over my medical school degree, which is really one of the beauties of being at Cambridge. I’ve been able to do different things at different times, meeting some really amazing people.
Q: What made you decide to study medicine?
Daphne: I was quite a sciencey student and enjoyed learning about how the body works and how injury happens. As a gymnast, I used to get quite a few injuries from the sport and saw Dr Cormac, a sports doctor. He was a really good doctor who took his time to understand each athlete, their sport, and the mechanism of each injury. He also worked very closely with the physiotherapist and rehabilitation trainers. This whole problem-solving process was really attractive to me and so I did a few placements in the hospitals and found that I really liked it too.
Q: How are you finding studying at Cambridge?
Daphne: It’s a great place to be! I think a big draw is the supervision system, where you get interactive small group teaching with people who are truly top in their field. Another great thing is that because of the collegiate system, we get to live and socialize with students studying a whole range of subjects, and not just from medicine.
There are so many opportunities here, both academically and non-academically. I’ve been able to explore both clinical and fundamental research during my degree. Other things I would have never imagined myself doing include: producing a full length ballet (Giselle) with > 100 dancers, spending 3 weeks working on an opera on the coasts of Cornwall, spending a month at the Edinburgh Fringe with a professional circus company, and going from absolute beginner to competing at the highest category of University Dancesport. Abit crazy thinking about it but I’m so glad I did all those things.
However, it is true that it is very academically rigorous. The academic rigour sets you up well for a career in academia if that is your interest, in addition to being a good clinician. Cambridge students tend to do well for professional exams after medical school, some of which can be quite hard. Some people prefer this learning style, as it gives you a good fundamental understanding of the Science that underpins the medicine you eventually practice. However, it might not work for everyone though, if you’re not so keen on writing essays or the very interactive supervisions.
I’m currently the Vice president of the Cambridge university surgical society and was an event officer last year. It is really enjoyable because we organise events, conferences and workshops. Other than events for medical students, we also organize an access event for sixth form students from all around Cambridge. I think it’s really important to make Cambridge a more accessible place which students from all sorts of schools and backgrounds can apply to.
Q: What does a typical day in Cambridge look like for you?
Daphne: It is very different in pre-clinical years and clinical years. In pre-clinical years, we would usually start off with a lecture at 9am, followed by a dissection or practical for 2 hours, lunch and maybe an afternoon lecture. The hours weren’t very long but there was a lot of content covered in each lecture and practical. In the afternoon I would work on essays for the supervisions, hang out with friends and do some extra-curricular activities.
We would have about 4 hours of supervisions a week in small groups of 3-4 student. During these sessions we discuss our essays and the content covered in the lecture. These sessions were quite intense and really interactive.
There are also some pretty cool traditions in Cambridge, like formal hall, which are a great way to socialize and meet new people.
In my third year at Cambridge, I did my intercalated degree with Physiology, Development and Neuroscience department. I had about 4 hours of lectures a week and would spend a lot of time in the lab. My project was part of the Watson lab and was titled “Investigating the genetic stability of a Mice model of abnormal folate metabolism”. I learnt a lot even though it wasn’t directly related to being a doctor. This includes key skills in lab research like PCRs, pyrosequencing, and sanger sequencing, and how to systematically troubleshoot an experiment which isn’t going right!.
In clinical years, it was 9-5 in the wards, clinics or theatres after which we would do our own book work. These were either in Addenbrooke’s, the teaching hospital in Cambridge, or in the district general hospitals in the region
Q: Do you think you will continue doing research in the future?
Daphne: The short answer is yes. While a doctor can help patients one at a time, research can allow you to change the lives of many at a time. It’s hard to say what form the research will be, but I’ll probably try a range of things as a junior doctor.
Q: Have you thought about what field you may want to specialize in in the future?
Daphne: There are a few things on my mind. I’m a very hands-on person, so I’m thinking of a surgical specialty, but haven’t really decided because lots of things look really interesting. I wish I could do everything!
As a Rhythmic gymnast I learnt the importance of having good fundamentals. We had to do lots of barre work, floor work and conditioning to build a strong foundation. One thing that really draws me to surgical specialties is that you need to work on fundamentals, just like in Rhythmic Gymnastics. Before you can do an appendicectomy or joint replacement or liver transplant, you first need to learn how to hold the instruments, and how to tie basic knots and sutures. Only then can you move on to even the most basic procedures and build up from there.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring medical students?
Daphne: It’s really important to figure out whether a medical career is for you. It’s quite difficult for most 18 year olds to really know what sort of life they want, so explore as many options as possible before deciding on whether Medicine is what you want to do.
Doing work shadowing in hospitals and GP practices can be very useful, but try not to go through these motions like a checklist. Volunteer to find out if caring for people and working as a team is something you truly enjoy. Talk to as many people as you can during your shadowing attachment. Find out what they like and dislike about their job and if you can see yourself living with those things. Not just now, when you are 18 and full of energy, but when you’re older and may also want to start a family (or not!).
If you decide it’s really for you, make sure to work hard on your grades, and entrance exams like the BMAT and UCAT. It’s really important to be genuine and sincere in the things you do and reflect on your experiences. You don’t have to “tick all the boxes'' to get into medical school. You can also ask seniors for advice and practice mock interviews with your friends. I’d avoid paying exorbitant prices for prep courses as there is often help available for free if you ask around!
Q: Has covid-19 affected your medical school journey?
Daphne: Yes. Back in March we had to stop in person learning and had online teaching for a few months. My electives were also cancelled, which would have been in Tokyo and East Malaysia in plastic surgery. Placements this year will also be bit shorter because of the time we lost. Now that we’re back in the wards, we are quite well protected. The school carried out a risk assessment to minimize the risk to students. However, there are some difficulties, such as whole households having to self-isolate when anyone shows flu-like symptoms. Especially since we are getting into flu season, a lot of people have been having to self-isolate, which can be bit disruptive to studying.
Q: Why did you decide to come to the UK for university?
Daphne: I can’t claim to have made that decision on my own at 18. My parents and I thought it would be good to gain a broader perspective on life, have a different environment, and become more independent. Cambridge was also a really hard opportunity to turn down.
Q: Do you miss Singapore?
Daphne: Of course! I miss my family and my friends, and the food! I also miss dancing and the rhythmic gymnastics community.
You can find me on Instagram @daphneducky or twitter @daphnetchia, if you have any questions!
K: Thank you so much for answering all my questions Daphne :)