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Star Scientist 
of the Month
- Dr Delfine Cheng

"I’m inspired by the people I work with every day at the Institute. There are such great minds around the place - it’s stimulating but can also be challenging."

July’s Star Scientist, Dr Delfine Cheng, is known around the lab as an exceptional problem solver and delight to work with. Here, she discusses what she loves about her job, and the surprising places you might find her on her days off.

Dr Delfine Cheng

Dr Delfine Cheng credits her father with her love of science. His interests, when she was growing up, became hers. 

“My Dad was into engineering and was very science-driven. He didn’t work in those areas but he had a great passion for them. He was always teaching us at home and encouraging us to think about the science behind things.

“One of my sisters is an engineer and the other one also works in science, so I guess you could say we were all brought up to love it.”

Dr Cheng completed a PhD in Medical Sciences at the University of Sydney in 2019, which saw her collaborate with Professor Diane Fatkin from the Institute’s Inherited Heart Disease Laboratory.

This led to her joining her current team at the Institute’s Mechanobiology lab.

"When I finished my PhD, Diane knew I was looking for a post-doc position, and Charles Cox just happened to be looking for someone to do some electron microscopy in his lab at the time, so she introduced us. It was luck and good timing."

Dr Charles Cox is the group leader of the Mechanobiology Laboratory at the Institute and says the luck was on the lab’s side.

“Delfine has been such a great addition to our team - she’s so easy to work with and is exceptional at practical problem-solving. 

Delfine in Lab

“As well as being a delight to work with, she has huge amount of talent in different microscopy techniques. She’s really taken our lab’s ability to do all sorts of microscopy to the next level,” Dr Cox adds.

“Delfine is an expert in electron microscopy of biological samples which is a high-end, high-resolution type of imaging technique that allows us to look at entities as small as proteins in a cell, for example. 

“The particular skills that Delfine has brought here to the lab have really moved forward our understanding in two or three key projects. We didn’t have the ability to do that type of work here previously - in fact, I don’t think anyone in the Institute has been doing that type of work before Delfine,” says Dr Cox.

“But as well as bringing new skills to the Institute, Delfine has also developed critical skills while she’s been at the lab too.” 

Despite only joining the lab in March 2019, Dr Cheng has already made a big impact.

Dr Cheng says the team is getting close to being able to publish some of its findings.

“At the moment, one exciting project I’m working on is making microtissues. Traditionally, people study cells in two-dimensions just growing them on a plate - but more recently there’s a trend to look at how the cells behave in a three-dimensional way, like forming organoids or spheroids. So, what we’ve been doing is culturing cells in 3D so they look more like a tissue instead of a flat layer of cells.

“Previously we have been limited by how thick a cell sample we can look at but now, with the advances in imaging techniques, we can visualise through thicker samples. That means we can grow the tissues to be a bigger and better representation of tissue itself.

“We are also trying to understand how properties of the environment within in the heart can modify how the cells function or respond after stress or injury. This is particularly important after a heart attack where the environment changes drastically and the function of these cells becomes modified because you need to repair the damage that has been caused after a heart attack. 

“I’m using different microscopy techniques to study these cellular changes. I’m looking at the interaction between the cell and the environment and how we can modify either or both to prevent the remodelling that often happens in most heart diseases, such as fibrosis,” she says. 

Dr Cheng just loves her job

Dr Cheng says she is inspired daily by the people she works with at the Institute, and her great colleagues are one of the best parts of her job. 

“There are such incredible minds around the place – it is very stimulating but can be challenging as well. Sometimes, I get a question and I think: ‘Wow, I really don’t know the answer to that, I’ll have to go and find out.’ But I guess that’s all part of the fun,” she says.

And her advice for anyone considering a career in science? Go for it! 

“If you like science, just apply for anything you think might be interesting. I have always told people, if you like it, just go for it. There is no point going to work and doing something you don’t like because it’s not just about the salary. 

You want to be able to wake up in the morning feeling happy to be heading in to work! I’m look forward to that. 

She has a surprising hobby

When Dr Cheng's not at work, you will find her literally scaling mountains. 

“I love to rock climb. I have a house in the Blue Mountains, and my partner and I go there most weekends to get away and rock climb together and with friends. Climbing takes my mind off work and helps me relax. When you are out there on the mountain you can’t think of anything else” she says.

“But it’s a much more time-consuming activity than people think. You can’t just drive to the bottom of the wall and head up a mountain. It can take up to an hour of hiking, with 10kgs of gear on your back, to get to the spot. But it is worth it when you do. One of my favourite places to go is Pierces Pass in the Blue Mountains, which has routes over 100 metres high.” 

Dr Cheng also loves travelling and can’t wait for the borders to open again so she can go home to New Caledonia to see her parents. 

Before COVID hit, she went on some incredible trips, including mountain climbing in China and South Africa and snowboarding in the French Alps.

“I love discovering new places, meeting new people, and most importantly, I love trying new food. 

When I’m at home, cooking is a great way for me to relax. The first thing I do when I get home is start chopping up vegetables and preparing a meal. That’s my cool-down time and it’s how I like to unwind. I also really enjoy baking!” she adds.

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