A career with moments of pure magic07/03/2014
Melanie Cheung is a neurobiologist who melds tikanga and Western science to study neurodegenerative diseases.
Kia ora Melanie, how do you describe what you do?
I am a neurobiologist. I work with clinicians, scientists, and communities to develop therapeutic solutions for people with neurodegenerative diseases. In the past, this has meant studying disease mechanisms in post-mortem human brain tissue, developing cell culture models from human brain tissue, and testing compounds in animal and cells models of disease.
I have recently started studying neuroplasticity, the brains extraordinary ability to reorganise brain structure, function and connections in response to internal and external stimuli. In May, I will be moving to San Francisco to do a Fulbright Fellowship with Professor Michael Merzenich, a pioneer in the field of neuroplasticity. We will be developing a brain training programme that enhances neuroplasticity to treat Huntington’s disease.
What led to your particular interest in neuroscience?
The brain is such an amazing organ. Without it we would be unable to see, hear, smell, touch, taste, move, think, plan, learn, remember, create, feel, and be ourselves. I am so fascinated by the brain that for me the wonder is that there are scientists who want to study anything else!
I am especially interested in neuroplasticity because I think it’s going to revolutionise the ways that we clinically treat brain diseases. That is, engaging neuroplasticity processes in specific brain structures (through refined brain training) has the potential to stimulate the brain to repair itself by producing the neurochemicals that are necessary to strengthen useful pathways, while simultaneous weakening dysfunctional pathways. I want to be at the forefront of that revolution!
What do you like most about being a scientist?
There are moments of pure magic that make the hard parts of the job worthwhile. These can come from simple things, such as mastering a difficult technique in the lab, writing an excellent report, giving a talk that is well received. Moments of pure magic can also come from extraordinary things: having an epiphany, getting funded, finding a significant scientific result, being told by people with brain diseases that your research gives them hope.
Were you interested in science at school, and what was your academic path after school?
I took biology, chemistry, and calculus all the way through to seventh form (Year 13). I also loved art and did three art papers in my final year of high school: printmaking, drawing, and painting. To be honest, I wasn’t very scholarly at school. I was trying my hardest to be cool and doing well at school didn’t exactly fit my idea of ‘cool.’ In fact, I almost didn’t get university entrance because I didn’t go to calculus class for most of my final year of high school. Luckily I had a lovely calculus teacher, Mr Cohen, who tutored me after school every day for a month before my exam. I passed calculus by the skin of my teeth and managed to get good enough grades to get accepted into an intermediate year for medicine at the University of Auckland.
My academic path hasn’t been straightforward. I partied hard and didn’t get into medical school. I eventually dropped out of university and worked for a couple of years. I finally found my way back to university at the age of 24. Alongside my studies, I got approached to tutor biology to Māori and Pasifika students for the Tuakana Programme and that’s when it all changed. I found out that I really loved teaching biology. I didn’t want to let my students down so I started working harder. I began studying for my own papers and thoroughly learnt the material that I needed to teach. My grades went up, and I learnt the value of hard work. Then I got the opportunity to spend a summer doing research. I loved every moment of it. That’s when I knew.
Do you think your job might change over the next five or ten years?
Definitely. I am still early in my career, so I am still learning the skills to build my career upon. Eventually I will have to find a permanent position at a university and start my own laboratory.
You can watch a video about Melanie and her work, and how her medical research intersects with tikanga, here at TOTES MAORI.
And here she is on the Māori Future Makers video collection, talking about her study and career path.
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