Shiyi Teo Serves as Volunteer Emergency Medical Technician

Gabriel Chen, Oct. 2004Shiyi Teo

You may have heard of Singapore, the ‘miracle city,’ which has the world’s best airport, one of the world’s busiest seaports and is regarded by business travelers the world over as the ‘best business destination.’

Singapore, a vibrant, multi-cultural, cosmopolitan and sophisticated city-state, expresses the essence of today’s New Asia. Its many names describe its attributes: city of diverse cultures, the garden city, the fun city and city for the arts. This year, the award-winning United States-based travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler conducted an annual survey that named Singapore as the world's best city to visit, ahead of places like Barcelona, Paris, New York and San Francisco. Readers of the publication's British edition, who did the voting, see it as the cleanest and easiest city to get around. The rankings, which are into their seventh year, are recognized worldwide as a benchmark for the travel industry.

What you may not be aware of, however, is that the Singapore government sponsors some 400 to 500 of the brightest Singapore students to go overseas and study at top "brand name" universities. Of the 10,000 Singaporean students who go abroad for their university education, only 1,500 go to the United States, of which about one-third are undergraduate students. The scholarship sponsors typically pay for their entire studies, including living expenses and, in some cases, a monthly salary. The scholarship winners are bonded to work with their sponsoring organizations for about 6 to 8 years after they graduate.

One such student, Duke Biomedical Engineering (BME) senior Shiyi Teo, was awarded the president’s scholarship, but he is not letting that accolade go to his head. The president’s scholarship is arguably the most selective among all government scholarships in Singapore. Teo believes in the value of hard work and does not take things for granted even though he is guaranteed a job with the Singapore government when he graduates.

" I was really happy that I got the [President’s] scholarship because it is in essence a recognition of the amount of effort I put in high school in both my academic and non-academic pursuits," Teo said. "Being a scholar has made my life a whole lot more stressful because everyone expects you to have an unimpeachable character, and at the same time excel in your academic studies, and to lead in non-academic fields."

Given the gift of the prestigious president’s scholarship, Teo said he had a challenging but enviable task of picking out a quality institution to go to. Then just 18 years of age, Teo said his choice eventually narrowed down to two schools – Duke and John Hopkins University.

While both schools offered a quality BME program, he said that it was Duke’s climate and environment that stole his heart.

"Duke has a warmer climate, which is very important for me since I come from Singapore," Teo said. "It is also in a small town/city environment. The pace of life there is less hectic than in my home country. I wanted to see how it would feel to have more space."

Teo said that Duke’s BME program is excellent. What he likes most about the subject matter is the idea that something so simple like plain old resistors or capacitors can come together for the purpose of building something so complex like an electrocardiogram (ECG) or a defibrillator. The ECG is a test that measures how the heart is working by printing on paper the electricity that is moving through the heart.

BME classes are also fascinating, he said. In his electrobiology lab, he had to remove the sciatic nerve from a frog’s leg and conduct experiments on the nerve. That brought the theoretical aspect of all the formulas he was learning in class to life.

"It’s just nice to see that living tissue does behave according to the formulas you’ve worked out," he said.

Teo said that if given the chance to make his decision again, he would still pick BME over medicine. Many universities outside America, including some of Singapore’s, offer medicine as an undergraduate program.

"While I have a strong interest in life sciences and medicine, I chose BME because it is a good mix of my interests and abilities. My interest is in the field of medicine and life sciences, while my abilities are in crunching numbers and in conception," Teo said.

Though Teo is not going to be a doctor anytime soon, he was quick to point out that since he was young, he has patched up any person who got injured.

Maybe this explains why when Teo is not in class, he can be found decked out in black pants, a grey shirt with "Duke EMS" on the back, carrying an orange bag with medical equipment, and listening intently to his portable radio. Teo is a member of the Duke University Emergency Medical Services (Duke EMS), which provides Basic EMT level care to the university, including the campus, medical centre, and research forest.

The group consists exclusively of volunteer members of the Duke community who are trained and certified as North Carolina Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). Duke EMS responds to all 911 and encountered medical emergencies on Duke property during the academic year.

"I remember my first call like it was yesterday," said Teo. "It was a choking incident. When we arrived at the business school, there were already 3 or 4 doctors around the choking man. He wasn’t breathing at all. But the paramedics and doctors finally managed to extract a piece of chicken from his throat. After that, we knew the greatest danger had passed. It was the closest I had ever come to losing a patient. For me, that was a baptism of fire and I don’t think I’ve ever been scared or worried on a call again. I’ve to come realize that life is really a fragile and precious thing."

Teo said the thing he will treasure most about Duke when he leaves is its professors. Every professor he has met, said Teo, has had the time and or was willing to make the time for him. Moreover, while his professors take their work seriously, they can be jovial characters in class. He said that for some classes, there can be a warm relationship between students and the professor, and it need not be in a one-to-one setting.

Teo gave an example of a BME professor he had last year, Nenad Bursac, who came to class really late, looking completely dishevelled and harried. Professor Bursac apologised to the class for being late, explaining that his wife had given birth at the Duke hospital. The entire class promptly congratulated him, and offered to give up the class period so that he could rejoin his family.

"Unfortunately, he only took up the offer in the last 10 minutes of the period," said Teo with a smile.

Teo added that never once did he feel like he was a burden to his professors.

"All they want to do is to help you push yourself to the limit of what you can really do," he said.

Teo graduated in May, 2005.