God in the Life Of

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Dr Gavin Koh tells Jo Duckles about his life from growing up in Singapore to his work finding treatments for diseases that affect some of the poorest people on the planet.

Dr Gavin Koh in Windsor.

Dr Gavin Koh in Windsor.

Gavin and I enjoy a coffee in All Bar One in Windsor, where he lives because the Berkshire town is just 20 minutes away from Heathrow Airport and his work regularly takes him all over the world. The tropical diseases specialist was born in Singapore and while his parents weren’t Christian, his grandmother converted from Buddhism to Roman Catholicism. “She was very active in the church and visited the elderly. She taught me the Bible and how to sing hymns.”

Gavin was a pupil at St Andrew’s Mission School, in Singapore, where his mother was a teacher. “The education was very Anglican. If I’d gone to a Roman Catholic school maybe I would have been Roman Catholic. I had an uncle who was Roman Catholic and my other grandmother was Anglican.” While his grandfather was a medic, Gavin did not initially feel drawn to medicine, dropping A level biology in favour of physics and pure maths, and expecting to become a computer programmer. “I admire the beauty of the abstract. With maths I didn’t have to learn anything more than the first principles. With biology I had to memorise pages and pages of facts. There are two ways I would describe vocation. You might have known from the age of five you were going to be a medical doctor and used a toy stethoscope to listen to your teddy’s heart. Another is that you try a number of doors, and only one opens,” says Gavin.

With four As at A level, Gavin was told he could do anything and was disappointed when he was not accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford. So he decided his path was to be medicine after all. “So through obedience and gritted teeth I went to Cambridge. If you believe in God’s calling then this was it. I arrived and sat through the first few lectures and thought I’d come home. It was so against the way my mind works and yet it felt like it was the right thing to do.” Specialising in infectious diseases and tropical medicine, Gavin worked in the NHS for seven years before returning to Cambridge for a PhD. His research was around melioidosis, a disease found in the soil and surface water in Singapore.

“The main reason people haven’t heard about it is because it affects people who have spent a lot of time in the soil. Rice farmers are not the richest people in the world and I learnt that unless a rich westerner dies of a disease, no one cares. It is something that plays out again and again and again,” he says. “America was last interested during the Vietnam War, but once the war was over everyone forgot about it,” says Gavin.
In 2013 Gavin became the Director of Clinical Development for Diseases of the Developing World at the global healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Gavin explained that GSK is such a big, established company with a product range big enough to fill any Boots store.

“I wanted to do something with a concrete impact,” says Gavin. “The fact remains that drug discoveries and new treatments only come from drug companies. No university has the manufacturing power or regulatory contacts or even the finance to develop a drug,” says Gavin, whose work includes research into Malaria. The majority of funding for the work he does comes from GSK, but agencies including the Gates Foundation and the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) make important contributions.

“I don’t have direct contact with patients any more and whatever job you do, there are always going to be frustrations, but you have to have a reason to wake up in the morning. I am pleased to say that the job I do gives me that even on the worst days. I know it will produce a new medicine for people who actually need it. The unit is never going to make a lot of money because but we do it because the World Health Organisation, one of our external partners, tells us that the medicines we are developing are the medicines the world needs.”

Gavin says that undoubtedly his Christian faith influences his work. “There is the inner spiritual life, but the Church more than any other organisation exists for the benefit of non-believers. It’s about knowing that the reason God put you on this earth is not to serve yourself or your own inner wants, needs, desires or pleasures but that your purpose in life has to be so much broader than just what you can see. The example of Christ is to do the right thing and to do good without counting the cost. I am a little uncomfortable saying that though, as I really don’t feel I’ve made huge sacrifices for my career.”

Worshipping at Clewer St Stephen’s, Gavin tries to be as active in church as possible. “The tradition is high Anglo Catholic and I sang the Psalm on Sunday, and I’m also an altar server. “I do what I can to help but it must be frustrating for people because my works takes me away for extended periods of time. It’s a privilege to travel so much. Last year I spent a lot of time in Ethiopia, in Gondar, ancient capital of the kingdom of Abyssinia and home to the ancient rock-hewn churches of Lalibela . The churches are actually cut from the living rock. I would have never seen those places if it wasn’t for my job. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to experience new cultures, meet the people who will benefit from the new medicine and to understand the difficulties people face in these countries.”
Of course Gavin misses his friends and family in Singapore and when we met he had recently returned from a trip home to celebrate the Chinese New Year. That is a state holiday and a time for family celebrations that nearly always coincides with Ash Wednesday.  “I also miss the food. Singapore is Asia’s meeting point and there are Indian curries, Malay food and Chinese food from different provinces in the South of China that you would not find in the UK,” says Gavin, whose favourite dish is laksa lemak, a noodle dish in a curry and coconut sauce.