scientist in lab

Star Scientist of the Month- Dr David Zheng

“I was fascinated with the way a heart can regenerate and repair after injury and wanted to learn more about it. That’s how I knew I was in the right place.”

14 December 2021

A molecular biologist who enjoys cooking and banging the drums, December’s Star Scientist, David Zheng has moved from fungi to zebrafish.

Dr David Zheng holds a small tank of zebrafish

It was quite a change – personally and professionally - for Dr David Zheng to move from studying fungi in China, to focus on heart research at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney.

“I was lucky enough to come to Australia to join Dr Kazu Kikuchi's lab as a research assistant in 2016. With not a fungus in slight - it was obviously a very different specialty to what I had studied originally, but fortunately I’m a fast learner, so got up to speed pretty quickly with the skills and techniques needed to work in the lab.

“The area of heart research interested me immediately. I was fascinated with the way a heart can regenerate and repair after injury and wanted to learn more about it. That’s how I knew I was in the right place,” he says.

Dr Zheng says what followed was an intriguing three years learning more and more about the heart, through work involving the phenomenon of zebrafish. These incredible creatures share 70% of human genes, and they can even heal their own hearts, which is why they make such great subjects. This work then set him up well to join A/Prof Emily Wong’s lab when she arrived at the Institute, after Dr Kikuchi left.

“After Kazu left the Institute, I joined Emily’s lab in 2019. It was a really smooth transition because even though they don’t work on the same thing, both research labs use zebrafish and I had really firmed up my skills in that area by then.

“The major difference with what I do now is that before, in Kazu’s lab, I would look at the function of genes which are critical to heart regeneration. Now, with Emily, I'm looking at the regulation of the genome. So that’s a huge change.

“Emily has been working on a group of short DNA fragments called enhancers. These regions are so important to a lot of things, including development, as well as heart injury and ageing. Once I started working with Emily, like with Kazu, I became so fascinated with the work being done,” he says.

Important part of the team

A/Prof Emily Wong runs the Regulatory Systems Laboratory at the Institute where they study short DNA fragments called enhancers, which are critical to development, as well as heart injury and ageing. She says the job David Zheng does is critical.

“David is such an important and valued part of the laboratory. He has a lot of responsibility leading all the wet lab-based components of my lab, including the aquarium, which is home to thousands of zebrafish,” says A/Prof Wong.

“There, he is creating transgenic zebrafish lines, doing heart experiments and also studying the function of enhancer elements.

“He’s really hard working and helpful but he’s also got a wonderful personality - that is probably his best feature! We all really love having him around,” A/Prof Wong says.

Dr David Zheng looking at zebrafish

David Zheng says the work he is doing in the Wong lab has changed over time, and the project he’s running now could be a game changer.

“In traditional molecular biology for example, we study group of genes and regulatory elements individually, but now it's a totally different level.

“But with the help of bioinformatics and advanced sequencing technology, we have an opportunity to look at every single enhancer in a genome, which is just incredible, and that’s the work we are doing at the moment.

“I’m intrigued by the regulation of genomes, how you can turn the genes on and turn them off at a critical time point and change fundamental information. A genome is like a very complicated toy and I'm trying to look at this toy to see how it's designed, how it's working and how this complex system can recover for itself when problems arise. That’s just fascinating to me.”

Enjoying his time at the Institute

Dr Zheng says the Institute is an inspiring place to work and loves how brainstorming and troubleshooting with colleagues so often leads to new or improved ideas.

“I love the interesting discussions I have around the Institute. We work hard, and it can be challenging, but the reward is the fresh ideas and problem solving that comes from talking things through with other researchers. Every single day we have conversations that generate solutions to hard problems,” Dr Zheng says.

“It might be a technical problem, or perhaps a question about where the research is heading. It can be nice to talk through the next step and weigh up the options with others. There is so much experience and expertise in the building, and I find everyone is willing to share theirs so that’s an incredible thing.”

Up for the challenge

Dr Zheng says he hopes the work he does at the Institute will see lives saved.

“Heart disease is very complicated and so I like to feel that I am part of a solution. Although I’m not directly saving lives, like a doctor in a hospital, I feel part of a community here where we are all working together to contribute different pieces of the puzzle as we try to figure out the mechanisms of how the heart works.

“So even if I’m working on a small part, I’m contributing to the building blocks to understand heart disease. I feel very proud at this.”
Dr David Zheng in laboratory

Time out from the lab

Dr Zheng says when he’s not at the Institute, he enjoys spending time with his wife and three-year-old daughter.

“My wife is a great support and she’s someone that really influences me a lot. If I’m struggling with something, we talk it through, and that always helps. We met when we were 15 years old, so there’s been lots of times for advice over the years,” he laughs.

And when he’s not at work, Dr Zheng moves his experimenting to the kitchen.

“I really love cooking, making meals for my family, which started quite by accident. When my wife was pregnant, I wanted to make things for her that were healthy and not takeaway food. Then I found that I really enjoyed the process.

“Cooking is like my experiments, where you can add ingredient A, then ingredient B, and then have to get things to a certain temperature and last for a certain time. I enjoy trying out different styles of Chinese cooking, like Sichuan, as well as local dishes too,” he says.

Dr David Zheng on his drum kit at home

And to unwind? Dr Zheng likes to hit out at the drums

“I always wanted to drum, since I was a little kid. So, after having a family, getting my own place and some money, a drum kit was one of the things I decided to buy.

“It’s an incredible way to release the pressure of the day and really clears my mind. It’s just an amazing feeling, keeping the tempo, keeping the speed and rhythm accurate. But at the same time, you can release your mind with rock music or some heavy metal music. I just love it,” he says.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years