Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute laboratory

Star Scientist - Monique Ohanian

From School Science Awards to Star Scientist

2 May 2023

When Monique Ohanian was announced as the inaugural Victor Chang School Science Award recipient and was presented with her award in 2003, she didn’t know that it would be the start of a long and fruitful relationship with the Institute.

Monique Ohanian recieving her School Science Award in 2003

Monique was presented with the award for Outstanding Achievement in Biology and Chemistry at her Year 12 graduation ceremony from Christ Catholic College – Loyola Campus, Mount Druitt.

“I remember hearing about the life and legacy of the late Dr Victor Chang, some of the ground-breaking research being conducted at the Institute, and the introduction of the School Science Awards and thinking how special it will be for the recipient to be acknowledged in this way,” says Monique.

Before receiving her School Science Award award, Monique had imagined where her passion for STEM could take her.

“I’ve always had a very keen interest in science, but it was a question of what could be done with that interest,” she says.

Looking back now, Monique says it was this recognition from the Institute that opened the doors that would eventually lead her to her future career.

“It felt wonderful to be recognised for my hard work by a world-renowned research institute,” she says.

“It was not so much about the physical award, but the amazing series of opportunities that followed. I was invited to spend time at the Institute, which allowed me to see science in action and witness brilliant minds converging, solving problems, improving lives, and saving the lives of so many people.”

Throughout the next couple of years, Monique with a scholarship from the Heart Foundation, completed several periods of work experience at the Institute before officially joining the team in 2007 in a part-time role while completing a Bachelor of Medical Science degree. She graduated from university with First Class Honours, the Dean’s Medal and the University Medal.

Carving out a career in heart research

Monique Ohanian preparing samples in a Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute laboratory

Since joining the Institute, Monique has worked in the Inherited Heart Diseases laboratory under the leadership of Professor Diane Fatkin.

It’s an important area of research that’s giving hope to many families affected by two common cardiac disorders: dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and atrial fibrillation (AF).

“By looking at families with these diseases we can work out what underlying genes are involved and how they affect normal heart function, with the hope to discover new and better ways to treat and ultimately prevent DCM and AF,” says Monique.

“This work also provides an opportunity to pinpoint family members with pathogenic gene changes and no disease symptoms that may be at risk of developing disease in the future. Pre-clinical monitoring in those people can lead to early intervention and prevent progression to disease.”

Using her passion for science to provide answers for families with inherited heart disease has been rewarding for Monique on both a professional and personal level.

“Working at the Institute has enriched my interest in cardiac genetics – it’s amazing to learn how genes influence the way the heart works and how genetic changes can manifest as heart disease,” she says.

“Being part of a research team at the Institute has translated a love for science into a career that is not only fulfilling personally but has many positive downstream outcomes for others as well.”

Recognising the changing nature of research

Though we often think of scientists as people who work mostly in a lab, that image is changing due to automation and new technologies that make data gathering easier and faster than ever.

It’s a change Monique has seen during her 16 years at the Institute - now splitting her time between the lab and working from home.

“Years ago, many hours were spent in the lab to generate data, but now with new technologies that have emerged we are able to generate data on a massive scale in a comparatively very short amount of time,” she says.

“We use whole genome sequencing and apply our bioinformatics tools, critical thinking and logical reasoning to the data. So, these days I spend a lot of time outside of the lab, analysing data.”

This change has emphasised for Monique the importance of transferable soft skills.

“Nowadays with so much automation and rapidly evolving technologies it’s important to have the skills that you can acquire through STEM – like problem solving, creativity, logical thinking and collaboration,” she says.

“That’s why I think a career in STEM can set young people up for a great future – especially the critical thinking skills because we have easy access to a lot of information now.”

Monique Ohanian in her laboratory at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Sydney

Advice to students considering a career in STEM

Monique feels that the key to deciding where you want to head with your career is to start by asking plenty of questions.

“For those students interested in science and research, I would recommend starting with a look at research institutes,” she says.

“Go to their websites, read about what research is being conducted and see if there's something that interests you. Reach out and ask any questions you may have. Doing this may shine a light on a new goal and help set out a clearer path towards how to reach that goal.”

As for what Monique wishes she knew at the start of her journey, her answer is simple: “It’s completely okay to ask questions. In fact, it’s necessary to get into the habit. A school environment where you are told what to learn is very different to working in scientific research, where you can direct your research based on the questions you ask."

You’ll never get the answers if you don’t ask the questions.”

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