Ahmad Syahir Mohd Soffi grew up in Malaysia and moved to Australia after high school to obtain a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from Monash University. At the beginning of their medical career, Syahir worked as an intern and medical resident at various hospitals with the aim to enter the specialist training program in obstetrics and gynaecology (O&G). After an unsuccessful application for the specialist training program, Syahir took time off clinical work to undertake a Professional Diploma in Tropical Medicine & Hygiene from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and volunteered as a clinical research officer in Botswana. It was during this time that Syahir developed their interest in public health.
Since returning to Australia, Syahir has moved to Darwin, where they are an O&G registrar at the Royal Darwin Hospital. Additionally, Syahir is currently studying a Masters in Global Health at the University of Sydney and volunteers with Rainbow Territory, a grassroots LGBTQIA+ advocacy group based in Darwin.
How do you break stereotypes in science and how has it affected your career?
I am Malay; therefore, I am a person of colour. I identify as gender non-binary, I am gay, and I still identify as Muslim as well, even though I am not the best at practicing it.
In the initial stages of my career, I was apprehensive about how my “non-conventional’ self-expression would affect my career progression in medicine, which is traditionally quite conservative. O&G used to be more conservative, but with the younger generation, there is a massive gender shift. There are a lot more women training in O&G now than men, and there are more visible gender non-binary trainees and fellows in medicine generally.
After I started working, I found that my lived experience as a gender non-binary, gay, person of colour actually enriched my career in obstetrics and gynaecology, as well as sexual and reproductive health, because it allowed me to see things through a lens different from practitioners privileged by white cis-heteronormativity.
My lived experience of intersectionality has given me the opportunity to be involved in advocacy work. I am able to have conversations with my colleagues about gender identity issues and how it impacts sexual and reproductive health. I have had the opportunity to speak to the government about these issues as well by being involved in some policy work. Funnily enough, my “non-conventional” self-expression has actually made my career more exciting.
How did setbacks enrich your career?
My career in medicine has not been as “straightforward” as some of my friends and peers. One of the main reasons I decided to undertake the Professional Diploma in Tropical Medicine & Hygiene was because I had been unsuccessful in my application to start specialist training in O&G. I have always wanted to do the diploma, but when everyone else is going down this very linear pathway to reach their specialty training and get to that consultant specialist level, there is not much leeway to do other things.
I took that setback as an opportunity to take time off clinical work and explore other interests. The diploma was taught in Tanzania and Uganda, so it was an amazing opportunity to learn more about working in those settings. The diploma does have an emphasis on public health and research as well, so it made me more interested in that aspect of medicine. Being in East Africa also helped me network with clinical researchers in Botswana, which allowed me to continue into a clinical research position after finishing the diploma. It was opportune to have that “failure” to drive me to do other things.
QUICK FIRE ROUND
If you could have a coffee with anyone (dead or alive), who would it be and what is the one question you would ask them?
Melinda Gates. She has done so much work around sexual and reproductive health rights through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations. If I can sit down and have coffee with her, I want to ask her, ‘How do you do it? How do I get there? How do I make a difference and encourage others to make a difference? How do I follow through to meet my goals and expectations, and how to dust myself off when I encounter failures along the way?’
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring doctors, what would it be?
My one piece of advice to the doctors out there is to take their time and not to rush into any decision. It is difficult, given how competitive medicine is. It is important to realise that it is okay to not know and take the time to explore the various aspects of the career. Take the time to explore things outside of a professional career as well. If you are privileged enough to have the opportunity to take time off and travel, do it. It is good for your mental health and well-being and prevents burnout.
Being where I am now and being happy. Working in an environment that is supportive and being able to do what I have gotten to do thus far is probably my greatest achievement overall. More recently, I have been working with Rainbow Territory, an LGBTQIA+ advocacy group in Darwin. One of my first projects with them was to organise a community meeting to discuss the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019. This proposed bill has many dodgy provisions, which can potentially affect people’s access to health services including contraception, abortion, euthanasia, IVF, disability services and mental health. This event is my biggest achievement in more recent times. Watch this space, hopefully we can block this bill!**