Women in Science Victor Chang Institute

Celebrating women in science - Emily Wong

"How I juggle the work / life balance as a scientist and a mother"

17 January 2020

Here A/Prof Emily Wong reveals how she established her own laboratory in a field dominated by males, while also raising a young family.

A/Prof Emily Wong at Victor Chang Institute

How did you become a Computational Biologist?

I started out in Biology but found that I really enjoyed quantitative research. Biology is complex and really well suited to quantitative methods. When I heard about bioinformatics I jumped at the chance to learn more and did a Masters and then a PhD in genomics. As with all research, the best part is to answer fascinating questions and try to make a contribution to human knowledge in some way. Computational biologists sit in front of computers a lot so it doesn’t look as interesting as it is! The most exciting part is getting interesting results, and I’m always learning new things.

What are some of the challenges you faced as you forged a career in computational biology?

Well this isn't specific to my field but, in general, science is highly competitive! Besides technical research skills, you also need to learn to be competent in many areas (e.g. writing, making figures, presentations) and all these skills can take a while to learn (I’m still learning). You also need to be able to deal with rejection and not take criticism personally. And, of course, much of the time your results or experiments (yes we do experiments in silico!) may not pan out. So you have to remain optimistic and persevere.

A/Prof Emily Wong And Her Team

Was it difficult establishing your own laboratory? What challenges did you overcome?

Being a woman in science and having two kids during my postdoc has been challenging (as a postdoc if you are not working nothing is being produced and publications really are the bottom line if you want your own lab). But I have been lucky because I have had held my own fellowships – it meant I was more independent and did not depend on my supervisors’ funding. So I could decide my own hours and work on my own terms, more or less. I have also relied on my parents to help sometimes. I also underestimated how difficult it would be thinking I could work productively as a postdoc while living in the UK by myself and feeding a 5 month old, signing up to meetings and realizing that it would not be possible to go with a baby who would not take the bottle… I have many examples!

What advice would you give to up-and-coming women in science who want to get ahead?

Work with excellent scientists and learn from them. I’ve found it helpful to have female mentors/supervisors. Try to figure out what you want and prioritize your career if that is important to you, because no one will do that for you! If you want to stay in academia – be prepared for sacrifices (of course, this applies to everyone).

Who has been your greatest source of inspiration as a female in science?

My PhD supervisor, Professor Kathy Belov, has been a fantastic role model and mentor. Also, Professor Sarah Teichmann at Sanger who despite her busy schedule always manages to find time for others. Working with Eileen Furlong at EMBL has also been inspiring – seeing how she manages to keep on top of the large number of projects she oversees. There are many examples of inspiring women in science although sometimes it can feel intimidating – because they seem like exceptions rather than the norm.

A/Prof Emily Wong portrait desk

Are there many other females working in your field of science? If not, why do you think that is? What needs to change to see the gender balance improved?

Science in general is very male-dominated at the leadership level. I think one of the biggest issues is trying to retain and support female researchers who take time off from science (or go part-time) after they have had kids. There are few pathways for highly qualified women, who have taken a period of absence, to reenter competitive science. Having fellowships for people to reenter academia would be good. To have grant agencies recognize that they need to allow more time for women who have had kids in terms of eligibility requirements for fellowships would be good (ARC and European Research Council does this). On an individual level, I think it’s useful to be aware of your options and to think about how to stay connected to science if you are planning an extended period of leave. If you are on a break try to stay connected with the research community. If possible I would suggest going to local science meetings and read papers to keep up to date with current research (which is not always possible given journal pay walls).

As our newest faculty member, what are you hoping to achieve at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute?

I hope I can bring my background, interests and experience in comparative genomics to cardiac research. It’s a very exciting time now to be doing computational genomics due to rapid advances in technology. Also, there are some truly amazing facilities here and I’m looking forward to tapping into new technologies to address important questions in biomedical research. I’m also keen to collaborate with others from different disciplines and to leverage people’s significant expertise and knowledge at the Institute.

A/Prof Emily Wong And Family

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I guess I'd like to be seen as a leader in my field of research. I hope we will discover new and interesting things that impact on human health and on our broader understanding of biology. I hope to encourage an inquisitive, accountable and open environment where people work together to do excellent research!

*A/Prof Emily Wong is a Computational Biologist at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute's Regulatory Systems Laboratory

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