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Written By

Janine Lucas


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

29 June 2022

Related Study Areas

Family, love and language

Anna Duan has quickly discovered a passion for public health and tropical medicine since moving from Melbourne to Townsville in 2021 to study at James Cook University.

Anna’s work alongside other Australian medical students on global health policy has led to research roles with supportive mentors at JCU on projects such as antimicrobial resistance, the tropical disease strongyloidiasis, and the OneHealth transdisciplinary collaboration.

We asked Anna to share her JCU Medicine story and her advice for new students:

"My family emigrated to Australia when I was around five. My parents and grandparents lived in rural China through the Cultural Revolution. I loved listening to their stories when I was younger, and it’s also why I appreciate living in Australia.  I’m the middle child – my brother is a year younger and my sister is 10 years older.

From a young age I was a translator and interpreter for my parents. My parents dedicated their lives to raising the three of us, and acculturation – learning English and getting used to a new country ­– was hard for all of us. I do have stories of parent-teacher conferences, doctor’s visits, all sorts of interesting appointments and phone calls, interpreting (and misinterpreting) documents, being intimidated by front-desk ladies, being afraid to miss important information to interpret. But it was all part of growing up, and I learnt lots as a kid from these things. I’m incredibly grateful to my parents, and language is just one of the ways I can hope to support them.

young women with medical student lanyard
group of medical students sitting around desk with laptops
JCU medical student Anna Duan's advice to first-year students is: "Don’t be scared to be wrong, and try to actively engage in lectures – it really helps you learn!"

Inspiration to study medicine

I didn’t always want to be a doctor. Until I was about 14 or 15, I wanted to be a musician. I attended the Victorian College of Arts Secondary School for a few years, studying both the piano and pipe organ on scholarships from both the school and the Uniting Church. I completed my Associate Diploma (AmusA) when I was 13 and my Licentiate Diploma (LmusA) in piano performance when I was 16. I loved performing recitals, being part of eisteddfods, playing the great organs of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. It was great fun, but not something I could see myself pursuing a career in. Although I study medicine now, I still play as an organist at Townsville’s St James’ Cathedral occasionally and I love working with the choir there, too.

The passing of people who meant so much to me and had such an influence on me initially pushed me away from medicine. Two people who had such an influence on my musical career – my grandfather and my earliest mentor, my piano teacher, passed at quite young ages from terminal cancer, and I always thought the medical field just wasn’t for me.

The hardships in my experiences as a first-generation Australian – acculturation stress, discrimination, language barriers – taught me to appreciate the immense generosity, compassion and love that others showed me as they helped me navigate a new cultural setting.

There’s a Chinese proverb I always loved, which is to ‘bring charcoal in the snowiest of nights’ to others – that’s what others have done for me throughout my life, and I’ve always wanted to do the same. Diseases we can cure with medicine, but what makes a doctor is to have a good heart. Medicine ultimately isn’t about our scientific mastery, our knowledge of anatomy or pharmacology.  Being the doctor to bring coal to others in their snowiest of nights, sharing love and compassion, that’s what I believe medicine to be about.

two women standing with arm around shoulders
artwork on social accountability with three figures and words surrounding them
Left: Anna Duan and mentor Professor Maxine Whittaker. Right: Anna's artwork for a research workshop with Dr Torres Woolley on student perceptions of socially accountable medical education.

Why JCU Medicine?

If you ask most of the students here, you’ll hear us say the same thing over and over: rural/remote, Indigenous and tropical medicine. I saw no other university other than JCU that would equip me with the training and knowledge to work in these settings.  JCU has a great reputation for fostering patient-centred and socially accountable doctors. The placement opportunities also stood out for me, especially being able to get hands-on experience and build confidence in working with rural and remote communities so early on in our degree … amazing!

Our lecturers are also some of the most humble and inspirational people I have ever met, and I love how approachable and supportive they are. The best thing about first year was being able to find ways to immerse myself in areas I was particularly passionate about: public health, policy, and tropical medicine.

JCU has so many wonderful opportunities for students to engage in what they’re passionate about. I did some work with the Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) last year, as a lead policy reviewer at JCU for the 2021 Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) policy. That led to more research roles. I recently completed a scoping review paper on AMR in rural and remote Australian hospital and primary health care settings, with support from one of my lecturers last year, Associate Professor Sophie Couzos. I had the opportunity to present the paper to AMSA Global Health.

I was fortunate to meet my mentor, Professor Maxine Whittaker (former Dean of JCU’s College of Public Health, Veterinary and Medical Sciences), last year. Prof Whittaker is such an amazing woman in global health. I’m doing some work with her in the OneHealth sphere and have been working with Prof Whittaker, Prof Yvonne Cadet-James, Mr Frank Mills (Environmental Health Officer) and a fantastic team recently looking at the tropical disease strongyloidiasis.

Working with AMSA has also been empowering, and I have met so many like-minded students, even overseas. This year, I am working with AMSA as secretary on the Global Health National Coordination Committee, and as Research Officer as part of AMSA’s Healthy Communities global health portfolio. Medical students across Australia have also worked together to publish a global health policy on pregnancy, perinatal and infant health. Medical school really has so many opportunities for you to get involved with everything you’re passionate about.

Golden piece of advice for new students

Don’t be scared to be wrong, and try to actively engage in lectures – it really helps you learn!  One of the biggest challenges I had to overcome going into medicine was being too shy to speak up in lectures or in class. After I overcame the fear of saying something ‘wrong’ in class or asking ‘dumb’ questions, I started more actively engaging in lectures. While I have definitely called out many embarrassingly incorrect answers during lectures (which I hope no one remembers except the lecture recordings!), I was able to learn content so much easier.

Ask questions, reach out to your colleagues and lecturers, and participate, not only in lectures, but in placements, too. I enjoyed my one-week health elective placement at the end of first year with Dr Kurinji Kannan in urogynaecology at the Mater Hospital. I was able to scrub into, and assist minorly in some surgical procedures, I was taught how to catheterise, and the lovely intern taught me some clinical skills such as charting medications. It was amazing. Basically, the more mistakes you make the first time, the better you learn in the future, but participation really is key!

Work with other students because medicine can’t be done alone. Finding a good study group and effective and fun ways of studying are among the best things you can do for yourself from first year.

I love how JCU staff really encourage us to work together with other students. Teaching others is one of the best ways to learn, and you always have so much fun. For example, my friends and I love the ‘under 15 minutes’. We take turns teaching weeks of content to each other under 15 minutes on a whiteboard. Anatomy sessions were my favourite, and we familiarised ourselves with content beforehand so we could go into the lab and ‘pop quiz’ each other.

I love creating slightly inappropriate mnemonics, making ANKI flashcards or inventing ‘anatomy charades’ games to help us better remember content. I think the biggest misconception of medicine is that it’s ‘not fun’ because it’s a lot of work. The amount of fun you can have while studying makes time fly by.

Career hopes in medicine

I started medicine not knowing how broad the field was. My favourite modules last year were Ecology of Health 1 and 2, taught by A/Prof Couzos. They changed how I saw the medical field as a whole. I found all of Sophie’s work in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health inspiring. She’s an amazing role model as a doctor and public health physician. She made me realise ‘public health’ was actually a thing – I positively didn’t know that before I started medicine!

Prof Whittaker is a public health practitioner and medical anthropologist who has practised clinical medicine and public health in underserved lower- and middle-income countries, and I also find her work fascinating and inspiring. Prof Whittaker is another role model for me, and it is with her support, encouragement and help that I have managed to continue fostering my passion for global health and tropical medicine. Ultimately, I would like to pursue a career in rural generalism alongside, eventually, a global/public health career.

I still have a long way to go though, with lots more to learn from amazing doctors, mentors and peers, but being in an environment like JCU is empowering and humbling."

James Cook University is a world leader in tropical health and medicine. Read about Honours graduate Dr Visai Muruganandah's stellar start in ground-breaking research into a potential replacement for the century-old TB vaccine.

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