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Johnny Tam (05-13) Neurologist

Of the many things that I am most thankful for in my life so far, having the privilege of studying at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh is at the top of the list. It was an experience full of fond memories. It undoubtedly dramatically influenced my development as a person, and, indeed, what I have achieved.

My "Merchiston Journey", as it is known, began when I was 10. I previously studied at a state primary school in Hong Kong. Although I was content there, I did not really enjoy school nor did particularly well in class. So I was thrilled by the opportunity to leave that bubble and start afresh.

Needless to say, the first year was a challenge. Almost everything was alien to me. I remember humorously my first day, when I was so frightened to use my very weak grasp of the English language; to the extent that I only used the words "yes" and “no”!  Fortunately, I lived in a family-like environment in the Junior boarding house, “Pringle”. My newly made friends and supportive teachers helped me to settle into this new life. Being immersed in such a foreign setting improved my English exponentially, and encouraged me to take up new and strange things. I must admit that playing rugby for the first time was a shock to say the least, but I grew to enjoy it!

Over the nine years I spent at Merchiston, countless opportunities were offered to me, in an environment which supported and encouraged me to pursue them (as the Headmaster’s country music-derived maxim goes: “Do What You Do Do Well!”). For the first time, I began to show interest in my academic work, which gave me the impulse to work hard. I owe this to the many brilliant teachers, who showed me the joys of their subjects and helped me along the way. I developed a strong interest in the Sciences, and, with the help of my teachers, ultimately decided to choose Medicine as a career.

I was also encouraged to pursue activities outside the classroom. I was able to try rowing for the first time and competed for the School and the local club. I enjoyed it so much that I continued to row at university. However, my favourite activity at school was Music. I was involved in numerous school choirs and orchestras throughout my time; they helped me to understand the pleasure which comes from making music.

All my experiences culminated in my final two years in the senior school. Over the years, Merchiston had developed my confidence, and now encouraged me to take on roles as a leader; something which I had never previously thought of myself as. One of my happiest achievements was leading a group of my friends in undertaking a project for a national engineering competition. Not only did we win the Scottish competition, but also won a UK-wide award from the Royal Academy of Engineering. For my final year, I was delighted to be appointed Vice-Captain of School and Captain of Pringle, the junior house in which I began this journey. I spent the year acting as a “big brother” figure to the young boys in the junior school. As a team of prefects and I lived amongst the younger boys and helped them to develop; just as my old prefects had helped me. Through joys and tragedy, Pringle experienced an intense and pivotal year. I am immensely proud to have played a part in it.

In my final year, I was overjoyed to receive an offer to read Medicine at Clare College, Cambridge. As I sat in the school leavers’ service, I was sad to be leaving, but excited about what would lie ahead. I acknowledged that none of what I had achieved would have been possible without the amazing people at Merchiston, who helped and encouraged me not just to work hard, but also to enjoy every aspect of life. In essence, Merchiston was more than just a school to me; it was a community of which I was part, a place where I was very happy, and where I developed into the person I am today.

During my time at Cambridge University, I found myself in a French café in Brittany, during a tour with the Chapel Choir of Trinity Hall, and I reflected on how I was back in the country where I had been on a choir tour in my first year at Merchiston. I could not help but feel my Merchiston Journey had come full circle. I have the School to thank for shaping every aspect of my life to this day.

I graduated from Cambridge from my preclinical studies, and continued my clinical training at UCL in London, during which time I co-authored a paper with a former supervisor of mine from Cambridge, published by the Journal of Neurology. The paper is entitled “The Witchcraft of Encephalitis in Salem”. In this brief letter to editors we discussed the famous Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century from the point of view of modern neurology, other medical theories on bewitchment in the past, and proposed our own theory: a form of autoimmune encephalitis known as anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. It’s a somewhat weird and esoteric topic but we wrote it in a format that is hopefully accessible to anyone with a minimal level of scientific understanding. I thought it might be of interest to other Merchistonians in the field of science, as well as any current boys interested in Neuroscience.

My most memorable moment was during the choir tour to Provence in Southern France at the end of my first year. We finished our performance in a packed cathedral, and the audience gave us a standing ovation as I (being the shortest singer) happened to lead the choir down the nave. It was then that I fell in love with the sound of the choral ensemble, and music’s transcending power to express emotion across languages and nationalities.