STEMM PROFILE: Sze Hwee Ong | PhD Student | Bruce Lefroy Centre | Genetics | Murdoch Childrens Research Institute | Melbourne | VIC

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Sze Hwee Ong [Image: J. Sim]

“Life is a learning journey and doing research feels like I am learning something new every day”

Sze Hwee Ong is a PhD student in the Bruce Lefroy Centre at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), Australia. Her PhD focuses on developing cell and gene therapy for Friedreich ataxia (FRDA) and demonstrated the therapeutic potential of bone marrow transplant (BMT) to treat FRDA using animal and cellular models of disease. She drove the design, optimisation and execution of experiments and data analyses, establishing neurobehavioral assays at MCRI and subsequently training her colleagues. Her results also provide an avenue for the delivery of therapeutic viral vectors for autologous gene therapy.

Hwee holds a Bachelor of Biomedicine with first class Honours majoring in neuroscience and pharmacology from The University of Melbourne and is developing a strong global network in her field and has contributed to various collaborations. Spending a year at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health studying the impact of neuropeptides on the fear and anxiety pathway, cemented her interest to pursue research in neurological diseases. The opportunity to combine her research interests with her desire to help those in need, attracted her to her current PhD project.

In 2015, Hwee was a finalist in the MCRI 3 min Thesis competition. In 2016, she visited leading laboratories and institutes in Europe, and presented at the European Society of Gene and Cell Therapy meeting in Italy. In 2017, she attended the Australasian Gene and Cell Therapy Society conference and won the Best Poster Award. Hwee has presented her research at multiple national meetings and was awarded a prestigious Harold Mitchell Postgraduate Travel Fellowship and the Ackerman Travel Award. These awards allowed her to connect with her international collaborators and visit several high profile laboratories in the UK and France. She was an invited speaker at Brunel University, UK and presented her research at the European Society for Gene and Cell Therapy conference in Florence, Italy. Hwee has a strong interest in science communication and has presented at various global conferences, engaging with a wide range of stakeholders and lay audiences.

With a passion to help others, Hwee is keen to pursue a career in biotechnology and/or the pharmaceutical industry, with interest in R&D, data analysis, regulatory affairs, project management and technical operations. In her spare time, Hwee likes to travel out to the country and connect with the nature.

With a passion to help others, Hwee is keen to pursue a career in biotechnology and/or the pharmaceutical industry [Image: Murdoch Childrens Research Institute]
What is it you love about science?

The fact that science, in particular biomedical science, is a search of answers to further increase our understanding to human diseases and more importantly the development of potential treatments. Life is a learning journey and doing research feels like I am learning something new every day.

What attracted you to your chosen field of study?

My current field of study on the development of therapies for Friedreich ataxia is an avenue for me to pursue my passion for neurological diseases and at the same time, gives me the opportunity to potentially improve the quality of life of individuals living with this debilitating disease.

What has been the biggest challenge of your studies so far?

My entire PhD! No one said that developing treatments for diseases will be easy and if it was, this world would be disease free. Having to face optimising many challenging experiments to obtain a single positive result, means I have to dig deep to persevere through. But it’s a real sense of achievement when it finally works!

Do you plan on working in industry after your studies?

If the opportunity arises, yes. Working in industry will definitely has its challenges too but it would be a heart-warming sight to ultimately witness patients successfully receiving treatments that had been the fruit following many years of development and testing.

How does society benefit from more women in STEMM and positions of leadership?

With more women taking on leadership positions can broaden the spectrum of ideas and creativity. This can ultimately increase the success rates of innovative research. Women already in leadership roles will also have the experience in overcoming hurdles that younger women will face in their career, and can therefore provide guidance.

LinkedIn: Sze Hwee Ong

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