Missing medical student's research published in journal

Mr Kouk (left) is listed as the paper's main author. (Below) Prof Ostbye (left) and Prof Malhotra looking at a copy of the Singapore Medical Journal.
Mr Kouk (left) is listed as the paper's main author. (Below) Prof Ostbye (left) and Prof Malhotra looking at a copy of the Singapore Medical Journal.PHOTOS: DUKE-NUS; WEE LAI MING (DUKE-NUS)
Mr Kouk (left) is listed as the paper's main author. (Below) Prof Ostbye (left) and Prof Malhotra looking at a copy of the Singapore Medical Journal.
Mr Kouk (left) is listed as the paper's main author. (Below) Prof Ostbye (left) and Prof Malhotra looking at a copy of the Singapore Medical Journal.PHOTOS: DUKE-NUS; WEE LAI MING (DUKE-NUS)

Medical student Kouk Leong Jin went missing in Greece two years ago, and there has been no news of him since. Yet his name recently surfaced as the main author of a research paper.

That's thanks to his three mentors at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore.

Acknowledging his sterling work on miscarriages in Singapore, they took the unusual step of putting the information together and publishing the paper, with Mr Kouk named as the first author - the person who did most of the work.

"He had completed the major part of the article, so we felt obliged to continue," said his clinical mentor, Associate Professor Tan Thiam Chye, who is also a senior consultant at KK Women's and Children's Hospital's obstetrics and gynaecology department.

Added another supervisor, Professor Truls Ostbye, who is with the school's Health Services and Systems Research Programme: "Getting it published brought some kind of closure to his work, rather than just leaving it hanging."

The paper looked at why women here suffer miscarriages during the first three months of pregnancy. It found that among those at risk of losing their baby, women aged 34 and older as well as those with husbands 41 years old and above, were more likely to have a miscarriage. Mr Kouk also showed that women who miscarried had much lower levels of the hormone progesterone.

Published in the Singapore Medical Journal in August, the information was based on Mr Kouk's third-year thesis. His work has been the stepping stone for further research which has since attracted $150,000 in funding, said Prof Tan. The ultimate aim is to identify those at high risk of miscarriage and treat them early.

Said Prof Ostbye: "It was a sensitive topic to choose, but he had not only the scientific skills but also the interpersonal skills and empathy to speak to women who were often stressed and emotional."

While all Duke-NUS students spend their entire third year on a research project, it is unusual for the students to take on a new problem by themselves and complete their thesis within a year, added his mentors.

"He saw it as a practical problem where there were no real answers for something so upsetting," said Assistant Professor Rahul Malhotra, another supervisor. "It started out as an idea and he wrote the proposal, the specific aims, worked on the questions and interviewed all the women. He did everything."

Since he had completed "85 to 90 per cent" of the work, the three mentors put in another 100 or so hours to polish the article and get it accepted for publication.

"We owed it to him," said Prof Malhotra.

Mr Kouk was 28 and a fourth- year medical student at Duke-NUS when he disappeared in September 2011 in Athens, where he had gone for a medical conference.

Extensive searches by the Greek police proved futile.

In the meantime, Mr Kouk's family continues to wait.

His mother, housewife Ng Yea Hwa, told The Sunday Times that while the research paper was a great achievement, all she longed for was for her son to be back.

"We are at our wits' end. I'm just an ordinary auntie and I don't know what to do next," said the 63-year-old housewife in Mandarin. "If he was by my side, I'd be so happy for him."

ailien@sph.com.sg