Profile: Up-close with Dr Jerome Rotgans

By Wong Sher Maine, Writer, Communications & Outreach

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Dr Jeremy Rotgans with his rigid-hull inflatable boat.

Medical education researcher Jerome Rotgans tells The LKCMedicine about his enduring love for the sea, the love which brought him to Singapore, and his passion to transform the assessment landscape in LKCMedicine.

Dr Rotgans, what was your childhood ambition?
My dream job was to join the maritime sector, go out to sea for adventures and see the world! My love for the sea started from a young age. My parents had a holiday home in Holland, near the water, and we had several boats to play with. During the holidays, I always spent time on the water. I had my own little boat with a small outboard engine from the time I was six years old.

After my A-levels, I did a degree in maritime operations in the Netherlands, and as part of my training I was a navigation officer on frigates in the navy.

Then what inspired the switch to a career in education psychology?
On the warships we did training for junior officers, using simulators. That got me thinking about education and active learning – How does the brain work? To learn, is it just repetition that is required or is there more to it? That was an inspiring moment which led me back to the university to study more about how people learn. Armed with that knowledge I developed training programmes, many of them for officers onboard ships.

You could well have stayed on in the Netherlands. What brought you to Singapore?
It’s a serendipitous and somewhat romantic story! I went to a wedding in Mauritius where many guests came from the UK and Singapore. Among those who came from Singapore, I met my wife-to-be. I quit my job a month later and came to Singapore. That was in 2004. We got married and travelled for some time, before settling down in Singapore.

I got a job with the Republic Polytechnic as the Head of Curriculum Design. That was when I did my PhD in Educational Psychology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. I went on to Nanyang Technology University in 2010, and then to the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in 2016 where I honed in on research into medical education.

Your research has gone into the field of neuro-science to “see” brain activity. Why is that a game-changer?
The neural imaging is conducted using a portable neural imaging system (fNIRS), which is worn like a swim cap. It utilises an infrared-spectroscopy system which measures the blood oxygenation in different parts of the brain. This allows us to “see” and study the thinking and learning process as it happens in the brain.

We started using neuro-imaging to understand what goes on in the brain of a doctor when he or she generates a diagnosis. It’s important because misdiagnosis is a big problem. In the US, about 1 in 20 outpatients is mis-diagnosed every year. Using neuro-imaging, we found evidence to support a theory that there are two independent and competing brain systems, located in different parts of the brain, referred to as dual-process theory. One guides fast automatic reasoning, while the other is slower and more analytical. Our next step is to measure brain activity in medical students as they learn to diagnose cases, and also how effective assessment systems are.

Your biggest work passion at the moment is in assessment. What are you focusing on?
In my role as the Assistant Dean of Assessment at LKCMedicine, I am interested in how to be more innovative in assessment in medical education. The field seems to have stagnated, with limited innovations in assessment tools. I hope that LKCMedicine can implement a few innovations in medical education to better measure the performance, knowledge, skills and expertise of our medical students, which would put Singapore ahead of the curve.

Take neural imaging. By studying the brain activation patterns, it would allow us to assess straightaway if a medical student requires more training in diagnosing a particular condition, without having to say a word.

There are also many sophisticated statistical tools in educational psychology which are rarely used in medical education, like latent-state-trait analysis. I am looking through the “statistics toolbox” to see which of these can be applied in medical education and assessment.

Outside of work, the sea still beckons. I hear you have a military raft! What do you do on it?
Yes, it’s a rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) which is usually used in the military. It has a rigid hull with a rubber skirt around it. It is about 7.5m long, with a superstructure on it which provides shade, and is fast and stealthy. I docked it at the Singapore Armed Forces Yacht Club. 

I like to drag my wife and two children, who are aged 8 and 10, to Pulau Ubin. It has a very nice bay where I can anchor the boat. Then we use it as a mothership to kayak in the surrounding area, go up river, and fire up a little BBQ. We also do fishing, and put out some cages to catch crabs. It is beautiful there. Sometimes when I drop anchor at Pulau Ubin, we are in a mangrove forest and we can see the monkeys and otters. It’s amazing. 

Jerome Rotgans is:
• Assistant Dean of Assessment (LKCMedicine)
• Assistant Professor of Medical Education Research (LKCMedicine)
• Adjunct Professor (Gulf Medical University)
• Adjunct Associate Professor (Erasmus University Medical Center)