Jacqueline Kueh is breaking ground on spinal repair. In decades, her work could enable people like my quadriplegic cousin
to live independent lives again. Full scholarships and stipends to pursue her research and PhD at UCL, a pending patent to her name and a post-doctorate lined up at Harvard Medical School, three marathons and presidency of UCL's Enterprise Society are but a few of her outward accomplishments. Jacqueline Kueh inspires me because of her refusal to settle for second best, her commitment to her work and her persistent struggle to realise her dreams, even if she's not understood by her family.
Born into a modest Chinese Malaysian family, she wasn't thought capable of working outside the home. "I vividly remember seeing a young pedestrian injured on the street," recalls Jacqueline, "but my mother stopped me from even calling for help. 'We are women, what can we do?' I decided I wanted to be a different sort of woman."
With aspirations to leave her environment and to study abroad, Jacqueline became an air stewardess and started saving. She funded her way through Western Michigan University in the US, becoming the second person in her family to attend university, and there learnt how to look for resources. There too she learnt that as a Bio Medical student, her options weren't limited to becoming a medical doctor.
"I had been passionate about medicine, and so I thought I could maybe do a Masters, if not medical school." She joined the National University of Singapore. There, she trained under Professor Ariff Bongso, renowned for his human embryonic stem cell research. Sceptical of her ability to pursue a PhD, Jacqueline "refused to accept" his initial assessment. Eventually, she had him endorse her application to pursue a PhD at the university. She was rejected. Bungso withdrew his support for subsequent applications.
"Because I only applied to one university, I had a 100% loss rate." She joined the A*Genome Institute of Singapore and through her network there, came to know of another NUS reject - who got admitted to Cambridge, and so she applied again. After a slew of rejections, offers from the USA and UK started coming in, but with the insistence to pay her way for her PhD. "A lot of people want your expertise, but don't want to pay for you." Refusing to under-value herself, and knowing that there were a plethora of funds for students, she kept plugging away until UCL offered to pay her for four years of spinal repair research, with courses in high tech entrepreneurship at the London Business School thrown in.
She finds it a waste that bright students in developing countries often settle for second best when there is no family or federal money for them, and they don't search beyond the most famous scholarships. "I didn't have that as well. You have to go search for it. You'll be surprised at the number of funds European and US universities have for students from developing countries. Don't discount yourself before you've even started the race. If you do, you've already lost. Apply!"With thanks to Zachary Latif for the introduction and to Georgette Tan's article Permission to Shine in PostMag, December 10, 2006