An Interview with Beth Chong, a Medical Student at the University of Melbourne

Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself!

My name is Beth, short for Bethanie. I’m 22, half Filipino, half Malaysian but I was born in New Zealand and grew up in Nepal. I’ve kind of been everywhere! I’ve just finished my first year of the Doctor of Medicine and I did Biomedicine before that. I’m really hoping to enter the Lifestyle, Nutrition and Health space within the field of medicine, but that’s obviously very far down the track. In terms of hobbies, I love cooking, which I have really been able to get into this year. That’s been a lot of fun! Ordinarily, I love doing group fitness classes, but since that hasn’t been available this year, I’ve just been doing exercise at home and lots of yoga. Since the Covid-19 situation has gotten better in Melbourne, I’ve been going on lots of hikes and beach trips. I’m a really outdoorsy person!

Q: What pushed you to do medicine?

It was a number of small things that all kind of accumulated in the end. I feel like I’ve always known that I wanted a career in service; through Medicine - in terms of health, or Teaching- in terms of learning, or working for social impact. I knew that I wanted to give, and on top of that I was very interested in science and fascinated by the human body and how it works. I felt that Medicine was a good marriage in terms of what I want to do, my values and what I’m very interested in.

The other part of it is that when I was 16, I was going through lots of chronic health issues like constipation, indigestion, high blood fat levels and the worst of all chronic migraines. I went to many doctors, but they couldn’t actually diagnose anything, so I was just put on painkillers. Every day, I had to wake up and take a painkiller because it was the only way I could get through the day. I was like “What kind of life is this?” I was then recommended by some of the doctors to maybe cut out red meat to help with my digestion. Since several different doctors were telling me this, I decided to cut out all meats for one month to see what would happen. Besides this, I like doing my own reading and research and so started reading about people who had reversed their chronic conditions by cutting out animal products, which sounded pretty amazing! In the end, I was my own evidence. Within a month, all my issues were gone! Obviously, everyone goes through health issues, this lifestyle doesn’t solve everything, but this really changed my life. I had no more chronic migraines, didn’t need pain killers and felt alive again! This, on the background of me wanting to serve people and my interest in health meant that I suddenly had this new passion for medicine. Not only did I want to go through the conventional western medicine pathway, but I specifically knew that I wanted to specialise in lifestyle medicine, in some way, shape or form. I’ve been working towards that ever since!

Q: What has your journey with veganism been like so far? Have you encountered any difficulties?

My family was kind of shocked when I was going through these health issues, because we thought that we ate pretty healthy. However, in making the switch, I was really lucky, because at home, my Mum’s rule was always to have two vegetable dishes for every meat dish, together with rice or bread. My Dad is also a Malaysian who grew up in the jungles of Borneo, so we’re a very fruit loving family! So, there was really only one thing on the table that I had to give up when I stopped eating meat.

I think the hardest part initially were the social situations, because when you go out with your friends, you don’t want to be that one person who’s like “I don’t want to eat Korean barbeque because I have nothing to eat.” I think that was a challenge at the start, and in those situations I’d sometimes just eat beforehand. However, I think my friends got very interested in what I was doing because of how life changing it was for me! They were always enthusiastic to try new vegan places and foods and it was always quite an adventure for them. I’m very grateful for their open mindedness! There have been some judgmental people along the way, but I just try not to shove it in peoples’ face, because it’s my decision and not theirs. I don’t mind what they do, as long as they don’t mind what I do.

Q:Why did you choose to do Biomed/ Doctor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne?

I’m a New Zealand citizen and some of my family lives in New Zealand, so I’ve always been looking to move to this side of the world. My Dad also went to school in Australia and New Zealand and was really encouraging! What made my decision was when I did the Young Leaders Programme in July, 2014. It was my first time in Melbourne, but I immediately loved the lifestyle, the work life balance, the art and culture and the really good food! I could see myself living in this city and the programme sounded fantastic too. Biomed sounded like everything I wanted to study and I also wanted the college experience. It all worked out in the end!

Q: What is the difference between Biomed and the Doctor of medicine?

Biomed is an undergraduate course, which takes 3 years and is basically a preparation for medicine. You’ll learn core units that you cover again in your first year, like Anatomy, Physiology, Immunology, Microbiology, Cancer, DNA and Pharmacology, with an additional focus on research. In third year, you learn a lot about up and coming innovations such as stem cells and tissue engineering.It’s not just about clinical medicine, but scientific research as well.

In the first year of the Doctor of Medicine, there’s a lot of Biomedical science, with very similar classes to the second year of Biomed. We also have been learning clinical skills, such as how to interview and interact with patients and how to do physical exams, listening to the heart and lungs. The focus is pretty different from Biomed, where we mainly just learn about the Medical science. The Doctor of Medicine is more people centred, where science is married with human interaction and where we get to learn how to interact and empathise with patients. It’s pretty amazing.

Q: How has your experience in the University of Melbourne been so far?

I will admit that the first year of Biomed isn’t great. Mostly because you have to do all these core subjects like physics and maths, which I didn’t really enjoy. In the 2nd and 3rd year of Biomed, you definitely have more choice and the course is more Biomedical Science focused. You get to learn a lot more about the human body, Immunology and Anatomy. I loved the 2nd and 3rd year! You just have to stick through 1st year to realise your passion. Through the Biomed course, I realised that I really liked the University of Melbourne and wanted to pursue the Doctor of Medicine at the same University. The application process is quite difficult. You have to take the GAMSAT (post graduate Medicine entrance exam), they look at your grades and you have to do an interview. I would probably have been happy wherever I ended up, but I’m very happy I got to stay!

The university experience has been really good as well. I got to meet many new friends and there are so many clubs and societies you can join, so your whole life isn’t just studying. You can do volunteering, sport and music, which is really important to me as well.

Q: What have been some of your highlights at UniMelb so far?

In terms of academics, in my third year of Biomed, I got to do a research project, working full time in a lab. I worked in an Obesity and Diabetes focused lab, where we researched on mitochondria and fat droplets to see how they interacted, looking to see if we could find anything new within cells that can force them to burn fat, forcing the body to lose excess weight. This was a highlight because it really exposed me to real life research. I was also given a lot of responsibility and not babied at all. It was very scientifically challenging as well, which I found very stimulating and enjoyable!

My first year of Medicine was mostly online which was challenging, but the Medical school worked really hard to make it as beneficial as possible. I still got to interview simulated patients (actors that have been given a script), to find out what was wrong with them. Even though it was on zoom, it was still a very real experience!

In terms of non-academic stuff, working as a mentor for the Young Leaders Programme has definitely been a highlight! I went to the programme as a student, attended University and was able to give back by working as a mentor as well, coming full circle. Clubs and societies have also been incredible as you really get to find like minded people. In high school, you sometimes make friends just because you see them every day, but in University, you can connect with so many people who share similar values and interests as you. For example, I joined Oak tree, which is a non-profit organisation that aims to reduce poverty around the world, as well as Vegan club, which is a whole group of people interested in eating plant-based food!

Q; What is some advice you have for aspiring medical students?

First of all, have a think and see if it’s really what you want to do. It is a challenging course and path to take, there’s lots to learn and lots of pressure. Biomed can also get competitive, because people know that there are limited slots available to do Medicine. In order to stay motivated, you have to really want it for yourself, not just for your parents or to make lots of money. There are many other ways to do this!

If you can, expose yourself to the environment to understand if you actually want it or not. You might hate it, but at least you know! Volunteer at a Children’s Hospital or shadow someone who’s a Doctor or doing research. Reach out to whoever you can to find these opportunities. If they don’t reply, don’t be disheartened. It’s not you, just them having a busy life and other priorities. If out of the ten people you reach out to, one replies, that’s a win!

K: Thank you for answering all my questions Beth! It was such a lovely insight into studying Medicine in Melbourne.

Find out more about Beth here>> @eatingmindfully_ on instagram


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