The Year 2021 in Review

First, the stats:

I wrote 71 posts (not including this one) amounting to 28,036 words; that’s half a DPhil’s worth of words! Traffic continues to improve, with 9,628 page views from 5,336 visitors to the site over the course of the year. My readers are overwhelmingly from Malaysia, although I am both humbled and pleased to see readers coming from a growing list of countries (see below).

One thing I’ve learnt this year is the value of thinking in terms of quarters when planning out your year. I’ll describe my planning process in my next post, but before that, let’s review the 4 quarters that made up 2021.

Q1: January to March

I started the year admiring the beauty of nature in Two Views, Neurons in Nature, Dendrite, and Dendrite, Again. This will be a recurring theme in my writing; the most important lesson I’ve learnt this year is how therapeutic it is to spend time in nature. The paradox of our modern world is that we are becoming increasingly detached from the world despite living in a hyperconnected environment. I can go on and on about this topic but I’ll save it for a later post.

In February, a dear friend passed away suddenly, leading to an outpouring of grief in Farewell Old Friend. For me, it was a timely reminder to check on family and friends more often, something which I have, regrettably, failed to do in recent years. Note to self: must do better!

Q2: April to June

This was a relatively quiet quarter. I got the first of my two (now three!) vaccine jabs at the Kassam Stadium in Oxford. The world around us was slowly opening up, with restrictions being lifted in stages.

I also wrote a couple of articles elsewhere. The first was Dua Dekad, to commemorate two decades of leaving my beloved alma mater MCKK. The second was an article for The Star, which I co-wrote with my friend Dr Khor Swee Kheng in response to some vaccine hesitancy in Malaysia.

Q3: July to September

My family and I did a whole bunch of travelling during this quarter. Partly, this was a response to my complete failure to see many parts of the UK when I was an undergraduate here. Back then, I was more of a Europhile (hah!) and therefore ended up planning trips to countries like France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy etc. The combination of Brexit and the pandemic made the choice simpler. Alhamdulillah, in retrospect, I consider myself blessed to have been given the chance to see how beautiful the rest of the UK is. My dream is to one day return to North Wales to explore the place further.

Q4: October to December

After pleasure, comes pain. Back to the DPhil grind, except that it no longer feels like a grind, rather a pleasant journey into the world of neuroscience. No, I do not wish to downplay the seriousness of the work or the difficulty of the process. I’m referring to how I view my DPhil now; it’s not something I have to do, but something I get to do. Being able to spend a few years learning, researching, reflecting on a subject in-depth, especially something as fascinating as cognitive neuroscience, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One thing I’d like to do in the future is to guide and encourage more people (especially my medical students) to pursue a similar path.

While we’re on the topic of pain and pleasure, I somehow managed to get a ticket to witness two of my favourite football teams, Manchester United and Liverpool, battling it out at Old Trafford. Except, instead of an all-out battle, what we all got was more like a playground scuffle in which one kid grabbed the other, gave him a wedgie and forced him to say “Uncle!”. United are now under new management, but I think the players have really let Ole Gunnar Solskjaer down with their attitude. If they’re not careful, they’re going to do the same to Ralf Rangnick. No wonder Gary Neville called them a bunch of whingebags the other day! Sure, they won against Burnley last night, but come on, it’s Burnley…

Liverpool are in a better place than United, no doubt, but they too need to improve if they want to be serious about challenging Manchester City for the title. The next few months will be very interesting if you’re a fan of the English Premier League. My own philosophy when it comes to football is to not get too emotionally invested in the success of a particular team. That way, I get to enjoy the football more no matter who’s playing!

And with that, I bring the year to a close. Thank you, dear readers, for getting this far. I hope that you have had a meaningful year too, and that 2022 will be better than 2021 inshaAllah.

Cold Morning #2

Vincent van Gogh once said:

If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.

The temperature was -2 degrees Celsius when I left my house to go jogging this morning, but who can resist going out when it’s looking like this?

I also saw wave after wave of birds passing above, flying southwest towards some unspecified destination.

Have a safe journey my feathered friends!

See also: Cold Morning (which I wrote in January this year)


I find it hard to believe that it’s been 17 years since I first set foot in Cambridge. Back then, it felt like I was entering an alien realm, full of weird rituals and traditions. Indeed, at one point, all I could think of was getting away from the place. That’s what six years of medical school will do to you, mmmkayyy kids?

Now, though, coming back to Cambridge feels like returning home after a long trip. Some of the characters have gone, never to return, but others have stepped up to take their place. A friend is now a Fellow and Director of Studies at my old college; how time flies!

COVID-19 made it more difficult to do all the things one would normally do when visiting Cambridge. Still, we were able to go punting along The Backs, an activity that brings back memories of peaceful afternoons spent on the River Cam.

Trying to enter Jesus College, I hit a snag; the porter insisted that no visitors were allowed into college (alumni included). Luckily for me, I knew the porter from my days as an undergraduate there, so in the end he only smiled and let us in. Apart from the new Porters’ Lodge, College looked exactly like it was when I left more than 10 years ago.

Before leaving, we stopped by to visit the new Cambridge Central Mosque. If you haven’t been there before, I would highly recommend going, even if you’re non-Muslim. The architecture is stunning, the setting peaceful, the people welcoming.

Until we meet again, inshaAllah.

DPhil Diaries #4

ICYMI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 are here.

Many (most?) people start their PhDs with at least some element of impostor syndrome i.e. the feeling that you are not good enough, or don’t have the necessary competencies, to actually get this thing done. I certainly felt that way when I started my own journey. Mornings were no longer about hectic ward rounds; instead, I found myself staring at my computer screen, trying to figure out if I should read another scientific paper or just call it a day and go to Blackwell’s home.

Eventually though, things begin to fall into a natural rhythm.

In my case, getting started with neuropsychological testing, calling up participants for MRI scanning, all these helped me establish a routine so I could feel like I was doing something. Of course, everything changed drastically during the pandemic, but at least I knew then what I needed to do, even if it was difficult or impossible to do right then because of all the lockdowns.

Alhamdulillah, I am now in my third year of this DPhil programme. Things are beginning to fall into place. In fact, I can honestly say that I am beginning to enjoy myself. It feels strange to describe a PhD as a vacation, but compared to the hectic life of a clinician, it sure is nice to be able to set aside some time to think about how the brain works, how stuff like memory work etc. Don’t get me wrong, life as an academician is far from easy, but it cannot compare with the life-and-death decisions that one sometimes has to make as a clinician. If I have any regrets about this PhD, it’s the fact that it’s too short. Three years is just about enough to begin to appreciate the complexity of what you are studying, but such is the reality of modern life that you feel like you constantly have to rush from one thing to another just to keep up.

One thing I’ve learnt is that it is important to celebrate small victories around the way. This week, I gave a presentation during our weekly lab meeting and for the first time, I felt that my work met the high standards expected here. I shared with my lab-mates the results from one of my behavioural experiments, and also some work I’d done on probabilistic tractography using diffusion MRI data. Both are not finished yet, but I got some really good comments from the wonderful people in my research group.

Like I said…small victories.

Anyway, in case you are still reading this, I’d like to share with you a quote I got from God-knows-where. I absolutely love it because it reflects the hard work and dedication necessary to achieve big things in life. It goes like this:

Choose your corner, pick away at it carefully, intensely and to the best of your ability and that way you might change the world.

As always, thank you very much for reading.