Monday November 1, 2004

Entrusted with research funds


Name: Michael Chew 
Age: 49
Hometown: Kuala Lumpur 
Education: Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur (Upper Six, 1974), BSc (Hons) in Zoology, University of Malaya (1978), PhD in Parasitology, Imperial College, University of London (1981). 
Profession: Science Programme Officer
Current base: London, the United Kingdom
Years abroad: 23 years 

f achievement for a businessman means making millions of dollars, achievement for Dr Michael Chew, science programme officer at Wellcome Trust in Britain, is the opposite - he spends millions. 

At the Trust, one of the largest biomedical research charities in the world, Chew is responsible for receiving and processing applications for research grants from all over the world in the field of tropical medicine, especially on clinical immunology and infectious diseases in Asia, central Africa and the Americas.  

Usually after each meeting during which the committee of the Trust finally decides to hand out many awards, Chew would feel a great sense of relief. 

“It means we can spend the money. On such occasions, I can go home and tell my wife, “I have spent £3 mil of my company’s money today,” says Chew in an e-mail interview.  

Spending millions is not all that easy because the Trust has to ensure that the funds are used on the best scientific proposals, high quality applicants and research that has health significance for the country, he says. 

“Although the Trust is a rich charity, the demands are overwhelmingly huge and the funds have to be prioritised for maximum impact,” says Chew who joined the Trust in 1997.  

For that reason, Chew has to read applicants’ scientific proposals, check their eligibility and the suitability of their studies, scrutinise the budget requests, ensure that the work meets with international ethical standards and select independent reviewers. He will also liaise with the Trust’s scientific advisory board and prepare for meetings which decide on funding. 

He also travels abroad, usually to remote and impoverished places to see the work that the Trust supports, provide moral support and ensure the funds are appropriately spent. 

“These trips, often to the most impoverished countries in the world, never fail to remind me of the privileges we enjoy in richer nations - Malaysia included - and of a decent standard of living. In many parts of Asia and Africa, people die needlessly from disease and malnutrition,” he says. 

In one instance, Chew only had to spend half an hour in a paediatric ward in Africa where two or three sick babies shared one bed and witnessed two children dying of malnutrition.  

In one poor Asian country, he saw a ward full of tetanus patients and children dying from diphtheria - diseases now quite unknown in most parts of the world. 

Tragedies like these motivate him to work towards helping scientists make advances so that these cases can be reduced. 

In tropical medicine, the big three diseases are tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria. In many poor countries, the problem is not the lack of understanding of the diseases but the high cost of treatments that prevents the poor from having access to them, he says. 

Since malaria is a big issue in tropical medicine, one of the research efforts that the Trust supported is the use of artemisinin-based combination therapy for malaria. Artemisinin is derived from a Chinese herb, qinghausu, first used centuries ago in China for the treatment of fevers. Trust-funded scientists in Vietnam, Thailand and Oxford studied the actions of artemisinin against malarial parasites, its pharmacological actions and side effects, and looked at various drug combinations in wide scale human treatment trials.  

“As a result of the studies, combination therapies that include artemisinin or its derivatives are now used effectively in many parts of the world, especially in Thailand, China, Vietnam and Cambodia,” says Chew. 

“It is hoped that more widespread use, especially in Africa, would lower its cost so that millions who suffer from malaria each year can be treated,” he says. 

In Africa alone, it is estimated that a million children die every year from malaria. 

The Wellcome Trust sole trustee is the Wellcome Trust Limited, a company registered in England. In 1935, American pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome, a naturalised British citizen, died and left £1 mil to set up a charitable trust. Today the Wellcome Trust has an asset base of £10 bil (RM68 bil) and spends about £500 mil (RM3.4 bil) every year to support biomedical research.  

Most of the Trust funds go to British academic institutions and long-term major research units in Thailand, Vietnam, Kenya, Malawi and South Africa. Some Malaysian scientists have also received financial support, says Chew. 

Chew has a lifelong interest in tropical diseases and had carried out 16 years of research work on the subject. He has published studies on the ultrastructure of tapeworms, connective tissue structure, rheumatoid arthritis, muscle biophysics, and microvascular permeability. 

He studied zoology in Universiti Malaya (UM) and was inspired to do parasitology research by a couple of professors from the Faculty of Medicine in UM. For his Honours project, Chew studied parasites found in the gut of Klang crows. 

He won a Commonwealth Scholarship from the British government and pursued his Ph.D. in tropical medicine at the Imperial College in London and completed it within 30 months. 

After his studies, Chew went back to Malaysia to get married. He also approached the Institute of Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur to offer his services, but all they could offer him then was the post of a director of a snake farm in Perlis. Chew felt the job was not what he was trained to do and with his fear of snakes, Chew declined the offer. His wife then decided to go to England for her postgraduate training. They eventually settled down there as permanent residents.  

Since becoming the Science Programme Officer at the Trust, Chew is no longer an active research scientist. He now lives in London with his wife, Dr Mok Quen Quen, a consultant paediatrician at the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. They have no children.

Chew and his wife were classmates in kindergarten and in Lower Six in the Victoria Institution. In Upper Six, he became the Head Boy and she the Head Girl. 

Saturday May 31, 2003

For the love of children

Dr Mok Quen Quen has spent more than two decades working to provide health care for children and helping to develop the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Britain’s largest children’s hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital. ADELE A. L. LIM chats with the doctor in London. 

xhausted from the long haul and an hour’s journey on the tube from Heathrow, Dr Mok Quen Quen stared dizzily at the narrow steps up the doorway to her modest new shelter at Arnos Grove and simply broke down in tears.  

“I wanted to go home!” she recounts. After more than 20 years, the memories of her first trip to Britain still bring back tears.  

For a young newly wed landing abroad to begin a fresh chapter of her life, it had been a daunting task indeed. The year was 1981 and Dr Mok had travelled all the way to Britain to be with her husband. With no family around her and no job yet, she was obviously afraid and alone. 

Today, the same woman who once cried at the daunting prospect ahead of her oozes with strength, passion and confidence. 

Dr Mok Quen Quen: 'I hope that children all over the world will get equal access to health care, similar to the standard that I provide to the children in Great Ormond Street.'
Seated elegantly across me in Villaindry, a charming bistro at Great Portland Street, London, Quen (as she prefers to be addressed) is Consultant Paediatrician to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), London, with a string of credentials and assignments to her name.  

Our meeting was squeezed into her tight schedule and she was to attend a meeting immediately after. Nevertheless, her demeanour never gave way to the hectic schedule ahead of her.  

Quen spent her younger days in Lebuh Ampang, Selangor. The fourth child of six children, five girls and a boy, she regards her childhood as “happy and carefree, but very disciplined.” She spent her primary and secondary school years in Bukit Bintang Girls School, and went on to complete her sixth form at the Victoria Institution. Quen attributes her high achiever spirit to her parents for always offering her equal opportunities despite the traditional Chinese preference for boys. 

“Even though we all knew that my parents wanted a boy and finally had my youngest brother, we were always treated equally, except for hand-me-downs,” she jokes.  

“If my mother were to get a pearl necklace for me, for instance, she’d get the same one for all her five girls!” Quen continued.  

“My siblings and I get on well. We were well provided for and given opportunities to travel and study. But we were never spared the rod. The good news is that my mother was very fair even in punishment. She would not bother who started a fight nor judged who was right or wrong. We would all get the same punishment for misbehaving!’  

That kind of upbringing encouraged Quen to be active in school. She was the Vice-Captain in BBGS, and went on to be the Head Girl in VI. Apart from that, she was a sprinter and long-jump enthusiast, involved herself in debate and contributed to the Science Society and the Editorial Board.  

Her father served in the government and taught languages while her mother was an accountant. However, Quen had always held a keen interest in science. From playing with her uncle’s doctor’s case of stethoscopes and thermometers, to witnessing her second sister pursue a medical degree and later specialising in paediatrics, Quen went on to Universiti Malaya to read medicine.  

So, was that where she met her husband?  

“We met in Form 6 and then realised we attended the same kindergarten together” she mused.  

Quen’s husband, Michael Chew Weng Kong, is currently a Scientific Officer in the Wellcome Trust, a medical charity that provides funding for medical research. She speaks fondly of her husband, and revealed that he was the Head Boy at the time when she was Head Girl, effectively making them “partners” since school.  

After completing her housemanship at Universiti Hospital, Kuala Lumpur, Quen married her high-school sweetheart and joined him in London.  

“It was hard initially. From a pampered life, I had to live in a room of a rented house with some friends and we had to share the toilets and common areas. I was also lonely. Fortunately, I had my husband and a strong Malaysian group of friends. So, it was very much like starting my own family, only in a foreign land without my parents nearby. 

“My husband was on a scholarship while I was not. Boredom set in as well, so I searched for a job and landed my first at Lister Hospital, a district hospital in Stevenage. I started as a locum with the paediatrics and maternity wards, and lived at the hospital flat. Sometimes I would get calls at 2 a.m. in winter. I remember scraping ice off my car to drive four miles to the maternity ward!’  

“With the work experience, I could take the MRCP (Member of the Royal College of Physicians) exam, and being in the UK made it easier because back then, we could only sit for it here.” 

But that experience was hard earned. Quen had to contend with discrimination from colleagues, patients and patients’ parents!  

“It’s three times as hard if you are a foreigner and a female. You need to work very hard to prove yourself. Only when others realise that you are better than they are, will they treat you as an equal.”  

This experience has helped her to empathise with foreign doctors who come to Britain for experience. She often tries to make them feel more at home so that they are not so ostracised. 

“A lot of foreign doctors are spoken to like they are stupid simply because they cannot articulate themselves well as English is not their first language, when clearly, most of these doctors are brilliant.” 

By focusing on aspects of her life she could control, Quen went on to earn her name in paediatrics. She was awarded the Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians (FRCP), the Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland (FRCPI) and the Fellowship of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (FRCPH).  

In June 1992, she left for Melbourne and spent a year training in the paediatric intensive care there before returning to London.  

“Life there was brilliant - great working environment, friendly laid back people, fantastic weather compared to London, lovely food, and I had time to travel. Though there was a steep learning curve for me as PICU was a new specialisation, the nurses and doctors there were so friendly and helpful. The Aussies were also much more organised and doctors only worked 55 hours a week, while I was accustomed to working 72 hours per week in the UK.”  

Today, her typical work-pattern is being on call once in five weeks, on a rotating basis with four other doctors. But “patient’s don’t choose when to fall sick,” and so there will be numerous calls for advice that sometimes warrant the need to return to the hospital.  

When she is not on call, Quen juggles her assumed roles and responsibilities: blood transfusion, resuscitation and post-graduate training committees, tutoring and chairing examining boards and joint Royal Ambulance activities.  

Currently attached to the most prestigious children’s hospital in Britain, Quen is certain she wouldn't have chosen any other field. Since her early days in the medical profession, Quen has always found an enormous satisfaction looking after sick children. 

“I find it rewarding. Children heal quickly; they are resilient and recover well. The ultimate rewards come from the intensive care because one minute they come in very ill, and the next, a much better outcome is visible. But of course there are times when the outcomes are not what we want. 

“I am especially saddened when a previously healthy child suddenly passes due to accidents or ‘non-accidental’ incidents like abuse. I can’t imagine how a parent can do such things (torture and inflict wounds) to a child. It makes me angry but all the more passionate about my job.” 

Quen adds: “It can be stressful, but it disappears when the children come back to see you. These ‘graduates’, we call them, simply walk in and show you that they’re doing really well. About ten years ago, we started a graduate party at the hospital so that the nurses get to meet them as well. In this line of duty, the satisfaction of seeing the results of your work is motivating and it keeps us going.”  

Apart from her parents, like most Malaysians abroad, Quen misses Malaysian food most.  

“Simple things like satay, char kuay teow, rendang ... and cendol!” she said as her eyes lit.  

“It’s much easier to get Malaysian foodstuff now than 20 years ago, but it’s still different. I guess as British as I am here, I feel every bit a Malaysian at heart.”  

Does she plan to return home then?  

“Well, I would like to work and provide services to developing countries. I have enjoyed my brief stints in India, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. I think if I do return, it would be to help develop the PICU further. We still have a long way to go in Malaysia to reach the levels of service in the United States, for example, but there are others who are even further behind. 

“In India, there is a huge lack of concern about being sufficiently equipped and PICU is about having state-of-the-art equipment for quality intensive care. In the Philippines, charity is rare. I spoke to a father who goes around selling homemade sausages after work for his daughter’s heart treatment, which is normally either free or highly subsidised in Britain or even Malaysia. Also, at GOSH, we have a successful fund-raising department, and charity is quite huge and well run in Britain. So we are relatively fortunate.” 

Quen says she never planned to live in Britain for 20 years, but with a good job and not due to retire anytime soon, it appears as if she has no immediate plans to return to Malaysia either. 

“I stay closely in touch with my two sisters in Edinburgh, another sister in Germany and my youngest two siblings in Malaysia via e-mail. We even managed to get my dad into e-mail, and he’s 80! I try to go back once a year. But on ‘pillar’ occasions, such as our parents’ fiftieth anniversary or seventieth birthdays, we will have a bigger reunion.” 

After all, this is the woman who says: “I hope that children all over the world will get equal access to health care, similar to the standard that I provide to the children in Great Ormond Street. I know it is impossible but I can but dream. That is why I try by helping to train foreign doctors from developing countries, as it is one small step towards that goal.”  

VI Prefects Board, 1974

Mok Quen Quen (Head Girl) is seated at extreme left. Michael Chew (School Capt) is fifth from left beside the Headmaster, Mr Victor Gopal.
Quen Quen served in the committee of the Civics Society and as secretary to the Science Union. She was also secretary to YKS House
and sub-editor of The Victorian. Michael played cricket and hockey for the school, winning colours in both sports. He captained the
School Cricket XI. He was also Captain of Rodger House.

VI The V.I. Web Page