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The Art of Wearing Many Hats

Prof. Tengku Ain Kamalden talks about her passion for ophthalmology, finding that elusive balance, and building an oasis of growth

Catching a breath from her hectic schedule before embarking on another slew of meetings, Prof. Dr. Tengku Ain Fathlun Tengku Kamalden shared her thoughts on work and life with PIE Magazine, amid a sanctuary of tranquillity at her home.

“Being a clinician academician and scientist, I wear all the hats together. All my colleagues in all public university teaching hospitals also wear the same hats,” she shared.

The vitreoretinal specialist at the University of Malaya’s Department of Ophthalmology is the only vitreoretinal (VR) surgeon in the department — which means long hours being on call.

Clinical hours are interspersed with hands-on lectures, administrative duties, and conducting research work where she runs labs, even as a principal investigator. In addition, there are tutorial classes for undergraduate and nursing medical students.

Fascination at first sight

Prof. Ain’s interest in the anatomy of the eye started when she was introduced to ophthalmology during a two-week undergraduate posting.

“It was a completely different field altogether, with different medical terms, different physiology. Everything was unique, and they seem to be talking in a different language. And so, that intrigued me,” she said with a soft smile.

“The textbooks were one of the plus points, too. They were the only textbooks then that had real pictures, being very colorful and beautiful compared to other textbooks,” Prof. Ain continued.

“The more you learn, you realize that this is just not about sight,” she enthused. “Where else can we get a part of a solid human body that is transparent other than the eye?”

Besides, there was something else that makes her ponder: “My name means ‘eye’ in Arabic, and even before I was in ophthalmology, I’ve always been intrigued by this — could this have been a sign?” she wondered aloud.

“It was a perfect match as I’d wanted something that had a medical and surgical combination, where you could be a physician and surgeon at the same time while dealing with microsurgery. So, my name, given by my grandmother, helped,” she shared.

Prof. Ain’s interest in healthcare was also ingrained at a young age when she observed her nurse mother’s dedication and humane sincerity towards her patients as a matron at the hospital wards.

This deeper realization also steered her path toward the medical field, especially with her passion for surgery. “It was at that crossroad when I was considering scholarships in the field that I had decided early on in life: We have 10 fingers. I could play musical instruments and write. I thought, if I could just maximize the ability of my hands in contributing to humanity, I could maximize the benefits of using my hands. That helps me,” she continued.

Finding strength in adversity

During the course of her undergraduate studies at the University of Malaya, her beloved older brother who was also in medical school abroad at that time was diagnosed with cancer. “It was a difficult point for our family, struggling for the first time with something so immediate and serious. But it brought us closer,” she recounted.

The challenge seemed to mount further when she was pursuing her PhD abroad. Her brother had a relapse while her father was diagnosed with kidney failure and needing dialysis.

“It was a lot to take in, especially when you’re abroad and you have a close-knit family,” she said.

Besides the loneliness, there were struggles with the course itself, diving into the rigors of academia of doing her PhD with no patient contact.

“I literally started from scratch in research, doing lab work. You thought that being trained for at least 10 years in ophthalmology meant you would know something,” she recalled. “But you go into the lab and realize, it was like going back to an undergraduate degree, learning something completely different, including cell cultures, looking into protein cellular pathways, etc.”

“Then there was the politics in the lab,” she shared, adding that most PhD students have faced these challenges.

However, all that served a better purpose. “It helped me gain some strength and it helped me guide my juniors and colleagues who faced difficulties, too. You understand these things as a rite of passage for some, and you become empathetic to juniors. It helps you to see the world in a different light,” Prof. Ain shared.

Her time abroad in the UK also allowed her to experience various trials. She spoke about the loneliness, of facing racism, and being a minority in a foreign land.

“I think it was important to be abroad as you would never have learned this in your own comfort zone. It has helped me realize that you can go further, that there are ways to do this, and you get this competence that you know you can try to create bridges and have a bit more courage to go out there. And that carries on till now,” she enthused.

Striving for that not-so-perfect life balance

Prof. Ain has spent the last decade delving into translational research, specifically looking at protein signaling as biomarkers that could possibly exude warnings before the complications of diabetic retinopathy set in.

How does she make space to grow amidst an ultra-hectic schedule?

Acknowledging the expectations upon women to be stereotypical, she said the demands on women ophthalmologists especially in Malaysia are found mostly during their pursuits at the subspecialty level (if they choose to).

When it comes to juggling life with these demands and duties, Prof. Ain remembers veteran ophthalmologist Dr. Carol Shields’ wisdom on balance.

“One of the things she said was, ‘you don’t expect things to be perfect all the time.’ It’s okay if things are at 80% instead of 100%. If the vacuumed spot isn’t perfectly clean, it might mean you would have to do it, or the kids, or somebody else,” she shared. “As long as you learn about priorities and don’t fret about the little stuff, that’s how people [find] balance. And everybody has a different balance.”

“I think the challenge is for every woman ophthalmologist and every woman [in general] to find that fine balance between their career and personal life at every stage of life, while not compromising the important values in their personal life,” she added.

Having said that, Prof. Ain admits that she strives to keep work matters confined to office hours. Finding her balance includes indulging in her joy of gardening, a hobby she picked up during the pandemic.

“It’s now a little forest,” she chuckled, confessing that they need more regular trimmings now with her going back to the office. She also enjoys learning about herbs and has cultivated a bubbling pond with guppy fishes, besides rescuing cats and dogs off the street.

Prof. Ain also finds joy in collecting books in her curiosity to learn about the origins of things, she divulged.

So finally, what keeps Prof. Ain going and growing?

“In the time and opportunities given to us, keep learning and changing for the better as much as we possibly can — so that when our time is up, our efforts allow others to do even better and go even further. Do make a difference in the right direction, no matter how small our contributions may be,” she concluded.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in PIE Magazine Issue 25.

Prof Ain

Quietly prolific, Prof. Dr. Tengku Ain Kamalden graduated from the University of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) with basic medical and master’s degrees in ophthalmology. She also obtained her masters in medicine (ophthalmology) from the National University of Singapore (M.Med), and memberships from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, London. Right after the completion of her DPhil studies at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, in 2012, she was appointed as acting head of the University of Malaya Eye Research Centre from 2012 to 2013, during which time she set up the first basic science laboratory for ophthalmology in the Faculty of Medicine, and established international collaborative research work with renowned institutions, such as the Johns Hopkins University (USA) and University of Liverpool (UK). The clinician-scientist presently holds the position of senior lecturer and clinical specialist at the Department of Ophthalmology, Faculty of Medicine at the University of Malaya. She was a Fulbright Visiting Researcher Scholar in 2018 and was awarded the Bronze medal in the Asia-Pacific Vitreo-Retinal Society’s Leadership Development Program (2019), among other awards. [Email: taftkamalden@um.edu.my]

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