90. Kevin Mao

28 Jan

There isn’t much Kevin Mao hasn’t done. Since graduating Dux of Ivanhoe Grammar in 2017 with an impressive ATAR of 99.80, Kevin hasn’t let anything (including the ongoing pandemic) stand in his way.

Kevin is a published scientist, passionate community volunteer, consultant, peer mentor, student councillor, and a St John’s First Aid responder. Most of his leadership and volunteering experiences are connected to Health Futures Australia, UN Youth Australia and 180 Degrees Consulting.

However, Kevin didn’t immediately find his path in life. Culturally, there were two choices for smart, high-achieving kids– studying Commerce or Medicine. Kevin picked Medicine because he “likes science and got the grades for it. My parents actually didn’t want me to medicine as it is ‘too hard’ and ‘you won’t have a life’. But I thought Medicine sounded interesting.”

Six months into Medicine at Monash University, Kevin changed his mind and switched to a Bachelor of Biomedicine at Melbourne University instead. “I was 18 and I was doing medicine. I didn’t know if I could be a doctor and that’s the whole course, there was no leeway.”

Looking down the academic pathway that was prescribed for him at such a young age prompted Kevin to make a change. “Just ‘cause you’re good at something, and just ‘cause you like it, doesn’t mean you have to do it. Life always finds stuff you can do” Being open to new experiences and allowing yourself to change your mind provides greater depth and experience.

By switching paths at 18, Kevin found himself in a new community, and exposed to new opportunities. Studying at the University of Melbourne was an excellent decision for Kevin, it allowed him to have a more holistic university experience than Medicine would have permitted.

He credits his switch to Biomedicine for allowing him to have a multidisciplinary approach to tackling issues he is passionate about. “I would get bored if I spent all my time approaching problems from the same direction. Instead, I have this depth where I feel like I’m doing public health in many different directions”. Kevin aims to tackle problems with his scientific, consultancy and social skills.

“I need to exercise my brain, and keep things varied. In today’s society, you’re told you need to learn more, you need to get more knowledge. But you just do the same steps over, and over, again. You pipette the same liquid, to the same concentration, to get the same result. Things don’t change unless you stitch the future together.”

His volunteering work with various organisations, such as Health Futures Australia of which he is now the President, enabled him to see a different side of Australia. HFA seeks to “combat existing health inequities”, and one of their many programs provides nutrition-based school programs to kids and their parents.

“The first time I went to Daylesford not as a tourist, I was working in a school kitchen to provide healthy food. We did a survey asking, ‘What do you eat?’. What caught my eye was that the canteen didn’t serve vegetables, except for potatoes in chip form! I felt really privileged cause my school provided salads, wraps, etc. [In Daylesford] they have a lot of farms – acres filled with organic vegetables, but had minimal connection to the food they actually ate.”

Kevin’s volunteering projects kept him connected to public health in a more personable, community-driven way. “That’s what’s the most important thing, is meeting people, and making a tangible difference.”

This isn’t to say you can’t make a tangible difference in research or academic pathways. “Research has these really big, long-term goals that you work towards. And when you achieve something, you celebrate!”

Kevin completed an internship in a structural biology lab at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research “looking at structures of cancer proteins.” And he is now starting placements a Doctor of Medicine at Melbourne University. When I asked what made him return to Medicine, his answer was one word – people.

“[Medicine] is probably one of the only jobs I could actually do where I make a direct impact in somebody’s life. What they care about is whether you’re a good person, and if you can get them back to their daily life. And that’s why I want to do it.”

Kevin’s advice to young people, and others looking to make a difference within their communities, is not to do everything. “First, focus on your values” to find something you are passionate about that aligns with what you believe in. “Focus your energy and time there, and find a way for your work, your study, whatever to reflect those values.”

“Structure everything in your life around your values. Say your goal is to be a doctor, you must do certain steps. But if you think of your values, say education, and weave it in that way, and it exposes you to so many more opportunities.”

Ultimately, Kevin’s primary value, above curiosity and innovation, is family. His parents emigrated from China more than 35 years ago and many sacrifices to provide for their children. His parents’ actions, and a strong cultural emphasis on family values, gave Kevin a strong sense of community and love.

“When everything else is gone, the people who are going to be there for you are your family. So, take time to love them.”

Words: Lucy Olsen

Picture: supplied

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