School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences (UQ)
Using genomics to find new treatments for depression
I am an early-career researcher working on using genomics to understand diseases and improve health outcome, including the identification of new treatments for depression.
Depression affects over 200 million people globally. New treatments for depression are desperately needed; however, developing a new drug from scratch can cost over $1 billion and take at least ten years. To save time and money, my research is exploring the potential of repurposing drugs that are already approved. We use a genomic approach, where we look for existing drugs that have a similar molecular fingerprint to antidepressants. The ‘fingerprints’ are the gene expression changes that these drugs induce in human cells, and a high similarity in fingerprints may suggest similar pharmacological effects. Using genomics, we hope to help find new treatments for depression in a fraction of the time required by conventional drug discovery approaches.
Leveraging a breadth of skills, my research program focuses on deciphering the genomics of female health, which has led to a wide range of outcomes that potentially benefits Queensland, including advances in understanding the basis of diseases, identifying new treatments, and informing preventative risk management.
About one in five Queenslanders face a mental health problem, most often related to depression and anxiety. Depression affects women more than men, as women are twice as likely to develop depression compared to men. Much remains unknown about depression, including its cause, which makes it challenging to develop targeted therapeutic treatments. On average, it costs over 1 billion dollars and takes 10 years to make a new drug from scratch, creating further challenges to develop new treatments for depression. My work aims to address this issue using genomics, which is the study of all of a person’s genes. More specifically, we construct molecular fingerprints for drugs, based on how human genes respond to exposure to a drug. By comparing these drug fingerprints, I have identified existing drugs that show highly similar fingerprints to currently available antidepressants, suggesting similar pharmacological impacts. I hope that by developing a pipeline to identify and prioritise existing drugs for downstream clinical trials, our research can fast-track the drug development process for treating depression, an outcome that can benefit hundreds of thousands of Queenslanders, particularly women.
During my PhD, I conducted a program of research on the genetic basis of breast cancer, with a particular focus on transposons. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer type in Australia, and affects 1 in every 10 women in Queensland. Transposons are genetic elements that occupy more than 45% of the human genome; however, despite their abundance in the human genome, they are difficult to study and are traditionally overlooked in genetic studies. My research showed, for the first time, that transposons contributed cancer-associated activities in breast cancer, by activating the expression of cancer-promoting genes. My findings warranted further investigation into the potential of transposons as treatment targets or diagnosis biomarkers in breast cancer.
Lastly, I have also used genomics to identify female-specific risk factors for cardiovascular diseases (CVD), a priority highlighted by the 2021 The Lancet Women and Cardiovascular Disease Commission and the 2019 Women and Heart Disease Forum in Australia. CVDs are under-diagnosed and under-treated in women, partly due to a lack of knowledge on female-specific risk factors. Using human genomics data, my research shows that the genetic risk of depression is a greater risk factor of coronary artery disease for females compared to males, and is a unique risk factor of heart failure in females only (which has not been demonstrated before). By improving our current understanding of the causes and risks of CVD in females, I hope to address the sex inequality in cardiovascular health by informing better risk-preventative management for women.
I aspire to be a role model for women and girls, particularly those from a non-English background, by sharing my experiences as an international student and researcher.
Growing up in China, my passion for biology started from trips I took to the botanic garden with my grandparents. My grandmother was the first girl in her family to attend university, which was very rare at the time. Growing up in a small village and speaking a dialect, she had to quickly learn Mandarin when she first came to the city to study. She practised every day, and despite all challenges, she built a successful career as a plant pathologist and presented her research at various national conferences. In a time when the image of a scientist was almost exclusively depicted as male, my grandmother showed me that women could also be excellent scientists.
Like my grandmother, I have also faced great challenges in my pursuit of a career in research, starting from my arrival to Australia by myself at the age of 15 to study. Within the first month of arriving, I had to perform a Shakespeare play in front of the whole class. At the end of my performance, my teacher said to me that my accent was too strong and that she had trouble understanding me. Feeling embarrassed and lost, I thought I would never be able to summon the courage to speak in public again. My grandmother’s story helped me find my voice again. I seized every opportunity to practise public speaking in English. By the next semester, I presented a monologue in front of my English class and got an A. By the end of year 12, I was on the student leadership team, and delivered a speech at the graduation ceremony in front of hundreds of students and parents. I then started university, and completed a Bachelor of Advanced Science with the University Medal and First Class Honours. Encouraged by my grandmother, I started my PhD in breast cancer genetics in 2017, and started presenting my research at national conferences. In 2022, one year after I started my postdoctoral position, I represented Australia in the Falling Walls Lab competition in Berlin, where I presented my research on finding new treatments for depression. My presentation was delivered to over 1,200 attendees at the conference, and broadcasted to the world via livestream.
I know the power of a role model way too well, because without my grandmother as a role model, I would not have been able to overcome the language barrier and find my voice again. I understand that sometimes women and girls in STEM, particularly those who face a language hurdle, feel like they have lost their voices. I aspire to be a role model to other women and girls in their pursuit of a career in STEM, by using my story as proof that we can all hurdle over the language barrier and use our voices as a medium to promote research and STEM.
I have actively participated in diverse STEM promotion and engagement activities with both scientific and non-scientific audiences.
I have supported various engagement activities tailored to women and girls. I was invited to be a panel member at the 2023 UQ institutes Women’s Day discussion on ‘embrace equity’, where I shared my story as a researcher from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, and encouraged other researchers from non-English backgrounds to embrace and celebrate their uniqueness. At the 2022 Falling Walls Science Summit in Berlin, I was invited to the Female Science Talents Meet Up, where I networked with female leaders from academia, industry partners, science funders and media.
I am passionate about scientific engagement with community members. Through the ambassador program, I have communicated my research to Queenslanders of diverse backgrounds, including over 40 high school students and over 60 senior citizens. In 2022, I was the only competitor from Queensland that was placed in the top 3 of the national round of Falling Walls Lab, a competition where participants are required to deliver their research within 3 minutes. I represented Australia in the final international round of the 2022 Falling Walls Lab competition, held during the Falling Walls Science Summit in Berlin. This prestigious event was attended by 1,200 leading researchers, Chief Technology Officers, science strategists, science funders and journalists from 130 countries. My presentation was broadcasted to the world via livestream, and the recording on Youtube has attracted over 420 views. My research has been featured by multiple media outlets, including the Australian Academy of Science and Study Queensland.
I am committed to mentoring and collaborating with female researchers. During my short research career (1.5 years post-PhD), I have supervised five female STEM students, and collaborated with female international researchers on various projects.
During my PhD, I was a member of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee at the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, where our mission was to ascertain recognition and achieve equal gender representation within the school, ensuring a safe and welcoming place to work and study for staff and students of diverse backgrounds. I played an instrumental role in supporting a survey of the student community, including the analysis of the survey data.
I have also demonstrated a commitment to achieving equal gender representation while organising science events. During my PhD, I was the chair of the Research Student Advisory Group at the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences (UQ) in 2019 (member since 2017). In this role, I led or contributed to the organisation of the three annual student symposiums at the school, where I was responsible for contacting plenary speakers and overseeing other aspects, including sponsorship, catering and selection of abstracts. I also organised a career development workshop at the school in 2019, where I invited early-career researchers to discuss their research paths with students. At all of these events under my leadership, we made it a priority to have equal gender representation in the selection of presenters and guests.