Sze Hwee Ong

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

Thesis topic: Developing cell and gene therapy for the neurodegenerative disease Friedreich ataxia

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Sze Hwee Ong

“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 Department of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne and at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute working on Friedreich ataxia, a neurodegenerative disease found mainly in Caucasian descendants. Her work focusses on the development of potential therapies, in particular cell and gene therapy, to treat Friedreich ataxia. Sze Hwee received an MCRI PhD Studentship allowing her to follow her heart to help those in need and pursue her passion in neurological disorders.

Sze Hwee completed her undergraduate degree with first class Honours in neuroscience and pharmacology through the University of Melbourne. 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.

Sze Hwee has presented her research at multiple national meetings and was recently awarded a prestigious Harold Mitchell Postgraduate Travel Fellowship and the Ackerman Travel Award. Sze Hwee intends to pursue cell and gene therapy research upon completion of her PhD and 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.

Whole-heartedly wanting to help individuals living with the debilitating disease Friedreich ataxia, Sze Hwee dedicates most of her time to her research. Yet despite the ever-growing list of experiments to do, Sze Hwee still likes to spend her weekends with her family, watching TV or indulging in some retail therapy to relax and destress. If time permits, she also likes to travel out to the country and connect with the nature as the peace and tranquility is beneficial to both the body and mind.

Hwee’s PhD project aims to develop cell and gene therapy for Friedreich ataxia [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.

[Profile image attribution: Dr Joe Sim, Photographer and Medical Student, Qld]