Piragathesh Subramanian wears many hats.
As evident from his email signature, which takes up about one third of my phone screen, Piragathesh is a representative for international students at the Columbia University’s General Studies Students Council, the president of the Columbia-Barnard Reflect, and that’s on top of his double major as a fifth year student in Neuroscience and Behaviour & Pre-Medicine at Columbia University.
All at the age of 26.
What is perhaps also atypical of Pira (and also a reflection of changing educational trends) is that he went to university through the polytechnic route, which is still relatively unconventional. He said:
“In fact, when I first started out in Republic Polytechnic, both my secondary school teachers and Republic Polytechnic [lecturers] did mention that the path towards medicine from a polytechnic route was either non-existent or very difficult.”
When I told my colleagues about him, one of them said, “Wah, he’s really smart.’
The cut-off Grade Point Average of past polytechnic students who enter local universities vary each year, but for the popular courses, they usually hover between 3.6 and 3.8 (out of four).
For even more prestigious Ivy League institutions like Columbia, it’s higher. Pira managed to get in with a perfect GPA score of 4.0, which he managed to sustain throughout his time in Republic Polytechnic -- no mean feat.
Originally wanted to be a pilot
He might seem like your typical Asian overachiever, but Pira tells me, over email, that being in the medical field was not what he originally wanted.
He had (literally) sky-high ambitions to be a pilot.
“Since young, I have been fascinated with planes and the idea of flying,” he wrote. Having parents who worked for Singapore Airlines probably factored into that childhood dream.
However, that dream changed when Pira encountered the wonders of life sciences in Dunman Secondary. “That shifted my interest towards medicine,” he wrote.
For most, going to junior college is the conventional (and more direct) route to take if one wishes to pursue medicine. But it was not for Pira, who did not like taking tests.
"Back in the day there was an emphasis on school bandings and how 'O' Level scores tend to affect a schools placement."
It put him under a lot of pressure and while he managed to score decently for his "O" levels, the entire experience made him realise one thing: That the conventional "A" level route was not for him:
“I was keen on pursuing medicine and wanted to (take) a different route…. I wanted to study subjects that catered to my interest.”
Choosing Republic Polytechnic’s Diploma in Biomedical Science
Deciding against junior colleges, Pira turned to local polytechnics. He decided a Diploma in Biomedical Science would bring him closer to his dream of being a medical professional.
Back in 2010, only four polytechnics offered biomedical courses and each of them had their own areas of specialisation with “amazing levels of research in their respective fields”, according to Pira.
It was a tough choice, but in the end, he chose to enrol in Republic Polytechnic at 17 years old because he felt that its approach to biomedicine is more holistic, which best suited his learning needs.
“To me, Republic Polytechnic felt like the ideal option as they had a biomedical programme that focuses on various medical topics and they organised their modules in a (complementary manner each semester).”
The course is comprehensive. Students study human anatomy, gain insights into the molecular and physiological basis of different diseases (as well as their treatment) and even perform research and laboratory diagnostics.
Pira also liked that RP’s Biomedical Science Diploma offers students the choice of two specialisation options: the Biomedical Research track and the Medical Technology track.
He chose the former where he delved into neurobiology, genomics, oncology, microbiology, among others.
“I found the modules to be very interesting,” he added.
However, his choice was met with some initial resistance from relatives and friends who saw Republic Polytechnic as an underperforming school for “academically weaker students”.
“However, that was not the case. Many of my Republic Polytechnic peers are doing very well in their respective fields,” he wrote.
Pira said that these stereotypes were disheartening, especially after he decided to choose Republic Polytechnic.
“However, despite the criticisms, I took all the information that I've heard with a pinch of salt and focused my efforts on what needed to be achieved,” he said.
Flourishing in Republic Polytechnic
So what did he enjoy during his time at Republic Polytechnic?
Aside from the polytechnic’s dynamic approach to academics, as well as the rigour of handling challenges and difficult situations, Pira appreciated how RP’s Problem-based Learning and hands-on approach encouraged him to identify new solutions for current medical conditions.
“I was also fortunate to be allowed to undertake internships at both the National University Hospital Surgical Centre and the Genome Institute of Singapore.”
During his internship, Pira experienced first-hand working with a breast cancer team.
The team comprised the Human Genetics Team from the Genome Institute of Singapore, the Surgery Team from the National University Hospital and the Epidemiological Team from the National University of Singapore’s School of Public Health.
One of the most important things that Pira picked up during that 15-week internship was the inter-personal skills through speaking with medical workers, allied health professionals, and patients, especially the terminally ill.
“I learned that human compassion is very important in the field of medicine. Patients need to be comforted with a sense of assurance, care, and positiveness; as a result, I do believe that as a doctor besides having to diagnose and cure illness, I should empathise (with patients) and help build their spirits.”
Aside from his internships, Pira also had the chance to take part in extra-curricular activities.
For one, he took part in the first ever Singapore Youth Model Parliament where he was assigned the portfolio for the Minister of State for Health and Member of Parliament of Tampines-Changkat GRC.
“It was here that I realised what attributes and knowledge one had to harness to become a good leader. I was empowered with self-confidence to meet challenges and had opportunities to sharpen my oratorical skills when I addressed audiences.”
A dedicated lecturer
Pira’s time at Republic Polytechnic would not have been complete without his lecturers. One lecturer in particular, Dr Ventris De Souza, Pira’s genomics lecturer, left a lasting impact on him.
“I did not do well in my first exam,” he wrote.
“I remember approaching her and she (sat down) with me and guided me in understanding concepts about genomics. [WIth her] her guidance, I was able to ace that module with flying colors.”
And it was this belief from his lecturers that drove Pira to try his best.
“My [lecturers] believed that I would be able to set a certain precedence by entering a medicine-based programme from a polytechnic route. This motivation and drive from my teachers and peers has allowed me to become Republic Polytechnic’s first ever-Ivy League student who is pursuing Neuroscience and behaviour, pre-medicine and human rights.”
Dr Ventris’ dedication is just one of the many examples of Republic Polytechnic lecturers who go beyond their call of duty for students.
“What I can say is, I stand upon the shoulders of giants and my success was due to my lecturer’s guidance,” added Pira, who regularly returns back to Singapore to catch up with this school friends and mentors.
“It was because of their encouragement, I was able to carry out my passions,” he wrote, adding that their motivation helped him to achieve a SAT score of 2290/2400 in 2014, and the rest is history.
Pira will be graduating from Columbia University in 2020, before he starts medicine in 2021. He shares that he will be returning to Singapore when he finishes his studies in 2025.
Reading Pira’s story made me think about how there is no such thing as a fixed education route. His story is a testament to how people can still succeed when they take the path less travelled.
“Choose your own path,” Pira advised. “There is no such thing as the "right education path." Everyone has their own needs and wants. Therefore do not be afraid to choose an academic route that suits you.”
If you’re interested, you can read about Republic Polytechnic’s Diploma in Biomedical Science course here. You can also find information on other courses at Republic Polytechnic here.
Republic Polytechnic will also be holding Admissions Talks for the Joint Admissions Exercise on the following dates:
11 Jan 2020 (Sat), 11am & 4pm
14 Jan 2020 (Tue), 7pm – 9pm
Top image by Piragathesh Subramanian. Quotes were edited for clarity.
This sponsored article was brought to you by Republic Polytechnic.