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Anne Pham on her favourite VCE subject, challenging herself and making it work

Jen Huang

Incredible Biology and Chemistry lecturer at Connect, second year Chancellor's Scholar at the University of Melbourne and Taekwondo enthusiast. These, and more, are the many facets of Anne Pham. 

In this interview, we chat to Anne about her thoughts on constantly challenging herself, her favourite VCE subject, feeling overwhelmed and the mantra of ‘making it work’, no matter what.  Hopefully, her words will provide some insights on how you can make the most of your own VCE experience. 

Jen: There are many layers of ‘Anne’ we can talk about, but I feel like your VCE journey is a good place to start. Was there ever a time during high school when you felt like your academic dreams seemed beyond reach?

A moment I distinctly remember is walking out of the first 2017 Specialist exam feeling shoddy. I was taken by surprise in the exam and just let my nerves get the best of me. I knew I dropped a lot of marks on that paper, and went home feeling pretty low.

But over the weekend, I decided to do my best to move on. I feel like the kind of head-space you're in can definitely influence your performance in high-pressure situations like VCE exams, so I didn't want my funk to wreck my mentality for the second Specialist paper the week after. 

If we wind the clock back further to 2015, starting Units 3 and 4 Biology was also a bit rocky. I hadn’t taken Units 1 and 2, and the transition between Year 10 science and Year 12 Biology was so jarring. The pace increased tenfold and in the beginning, all of the new pieces of vocabulary sounded like gibberish words. It felt like going from connecting the dots of a Mona Lisa picture to a Leonardo da Vinci painting.

Tell us about how you came to love those 'gibberish words' so much that you’ve committed to a course like Biomedicine, and have even devoted time to biology-related extracurricular activities.

VCE Biology did get easier, but it wasn’t handed to me on a platter. I remember writing out all the new terms on sticky notes and cue cards. The sticky notes would go into the bathroom around the mirror and all around the house. The cue cards would be pulled out whenever I was feeling like revising on the tram. Basically, I committed 100% to first understanding the content. 

Once I started to actually get what the teacher was saying, I could finally think more about the concepts I was learning, and this was where everything became so much more interesting! 

I was understanding things about the human body I hadn’t even begun to ask questions about, like how food is digested and stored, how locomotion occurs and how we evolved from our primate ancestors. Essentially, VCE gave me everything I needed for a rebuttal whenever my sister called me a ‘literal couch potato’. And since studying for something I'm genuinely interested in comes more naturally than slogging away at dense terminology, I found the hard work to be way worth it.

The real icing on the cake was the 2017 International Biology Olympiad. Only four Australian students were selected to compete in the UK, and the training and selection process were grueling to say the least. Because VCE made me realise that I love Biology a whole lot, there was nothing I wanted more than to get onto the Australian Biology team. I studied so, so hard. When the program director called to tell me I was on the team, I almost cried. I guess when you know you've really worked for something, being rewarded for it feels that much sweeter.

And now I’ve caught you up to where I am now, which is doing Biomedicine at the University of Melbourne. As predicted, it’s challenging, but I couldn't be happier. The bottom line is I absolutely love what I’m doing, and I can’t wait to see what else I learn.


Key points:

  • In VCE, head-space matters. Looking after your state of mind can be just as important as hitting the books. 
  • Studying is more than just making notes and listening in class. Actively engage with content by using strategies that suit you, like making cue cards.
  • Being rewarded for working hard feels so much better than being rewarded for doing nothing. There's no better time than now to put in the effort!


What motivates you to endure the university workload with a huge smile?

Honestly, I think it comes down to being passionate about what I'm learning. I want to know everything and more about the human body, and once I have anatomy knowledge down pat, I can think about surgical repair procedures, patient care and improving patients' quality of life. This need to know more is what gets me up everyday and look forward to a potential career in medicine.  

I enjoy challenges because I think they make me grow as a person… though not in the physical height sense since that ship sailed a few years ago. Even if I don’t always excel in whatever challenges I take on, I always learn something. I don’t want to stagnate yet. Ultimately, my mentality probably boils down to doing what I like, putting in my all, and making it work. 

You manage to fit in all that study with teaching, martial arts and also  art! Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities?

I try to only do what I enjoy, so I keep up with all these things because they make me happy in their own special ways. With that said, I feel overwhelmed all the time. Practically, I am aware that there is a physical and psychological limit to what I can get done, so I methodically prioritise what is most important to me and tell myself it’s not the end of the world if I don't finish everything (because it really isn't).  

When things get a bit too intense, I rely a lot on my friends and family to keep me grounded. When I am reminded that people care about how I’m going, it really pulls me back from my toxic thoughts. It helps me to get my head back on my shoulders, and me back on my feet.

During the times that I’m at my lowest of lows and very literally cannot do any more work, I always let myself have a day off. In this day, I can do whatever I want: rest, draw, read, go for a run. But I always limit myself to one day, because I know that if it extends beyond that, then it is just me procrastinating. To me, nothing feels worse than procrastinating and knowing that I could have reached my goals if I had just had more discipline. 

Let’s wrap this interview up by looking into the future. I know you’re heading overseas for a semester abroad soon. What motivates you to explore McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and what excites you or makes you nervous?

I have wanted to study away from home for so long. It’s a challenge and a bit out of my comfort zone, but because of that, it’ll make me learn and grow. 

I worry about the fact that I have no idea what to do if my microwave gets set on fire, and I can’t scream for my dad anymore if a find a spider in the house. I don’t even know if I’ll remember to dial 911 and not 000... so it's going to be a journey.

I’m also so, so excited to travel. The world is a big place and I can’t wait to find what lies on the other side of the globe. 


Key points:

  • Everyone feels overwhelmed sometimes. Make sure you're well-equipped get back on your feet by prioritising responsibilities and leaning on loved ones. 
  • Try to set realistic goals for yourself and don't beat yourself up if you can't get everything done. As long as you know you've tried your hardest, it's not the end of the world. 
  • Don't be afraid of a challenge. Trying difficult or new things is tough, but you'll come out on the other side with personal growth to show for it.
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