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Neuroscientist made distinguished alumnus

5 March 2014

Neuroscientist made distinguished alumnus

Neuroscientist, medical doctor and Paralympic wheelchair athlete, Dr William Tan, has been made a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Auckland.

He is one of six University of Auckland Distinguished Alumni to receive the award at a gala dinner in Auckland next week.

The 56 year old from Singapore gained an MPhil (Medical Science), Master of Health Science, and PhD in Paediatrics from the University of Auckland between 1989 and 1995.

Dr Tan contracted polio at two years old, resulting in paralysis from the waist down. He has since shown amazing strength in overcoming adversities.

As a young man, he pursued his dream to become a scientist and medical doctor. After gaining a First Class Honours in Physiology, Dr Tan won a Singapore scholarship to pursue his PhD in Paediatrics at the University of Auckland working under the guidance of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman and Christopher Williams.

“I was looking at the process of brain injury from oxygen deprivation during childbirth and how interventions using drugs can be carried out to salvage the brain cells after the injury,” he says.

After his PhD, he continued the same field of neuroscience research at the University of Auckland’s Research Centre for Developmental Medicine and Biology for two years. He left Auckland in 1995 to become a research fellow in Neurosurgery at the Mayo Clinic where he translated his skills and experience to the adult setting - looking at the process of brain injury from oxygen deprivation during neurosurgery and during stroke.

“My work as a neuroscientist takes a very different form now,” he says. “I am using my knowledge of neuroscience to help individuals, leaders and organisations peak perform, (as the chief peak performance strategist at Singapore’s Peak Performance Institute).

He is also a resident physician at the National Cancer Centre in Singapore looking after cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy (with 100 patients to look after a day on average). He also travels extensively to speak in various countries as an international inspirational speaker and neuroscientist.

Dr Tan’s record as a talented sportsman is also impressive. A triple gold medallist at the Asia-Pacific Games in 1986, he has competed in many international Games including the 1988 Seoul Paralympics and the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland.

He has also used his athletic abilities to help fundraising for needy causes around the world. These have included skydiving, water-skiing, sailing and climbing buildings. Over the last 20 years he has raised more than $18 million for charities both locally and internationally.

Dr Tan became a wheelchair marathon champion in Singapore, and while living in Auckland he “blossomed as a wheelchair athlete marathon racer”, competing in regional games, nationals and marathons.

“The highlight of which was I broke five New Zealand national wheelchair track records in one day,” he says.

One of his ultra-marathon endeavours included a wheelchair push the length of New Zealand.

He has competed in many marathons including the London and Boston Marathons. In 2007, Dr Tan became the first person in the world to complete a marathon in the North Pole. In the same year, he broke the world record for completing 7 marathons across 7 continents in 26 days, 17 hours, 43 minutes and 52 seconds- an amazing achievement.

Dr Tan also received widespread international recognition including the Outstanding Young Persons of the World Award (Humanitarian/ Voluntary Leadership) given by the Junior Chamber International, USA in 1997; the Commonwealth Youth Award for Excellence in Youth Work in 1998 and the ASEAN Youth Award in 2000. In 2003, he was honoured with the Reader's Digest Inspiring Asian Award which 'recognized deserving individuals who must be able to demonstrate that they have made a difference or are making a difference and are encouraging others to do so'.

In early 2008, Dr William Tan was recognised at the Annual Sports Superstar Awards, held by the Singapore Disability Sports Council, winning the Sportsman of the Year Award for 2007.

In April 2009, Dr Tan was diagnosed with cancer, undergoing chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant for stage four leukemia. Successfully battling the disease in its end stages, he was advised against racing by his oncologist, deciding instead to reinvent himself and take up the sport of para-table tennis in 2011, where he climbed the standings from 123rd in the world at the beginning of the year to 48th just six months later.


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