Emily Wong is an Associate Professor at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney, Australia, where she combines experimental and data science approaches to investigate the role of the non-coding genome in development, disease and evolution. This year, the Australian Academy of Science awarded her the Fenner Medal in recognition of her work on enhancers. We met with Emily over Zoom, and she explained how an early interest in nature, coupled with a passion for comparative genomics, has influenced her career so far.

Let's start at the beginning, when did you first become interested in science?

I was always really interested in asking questions at school, but there are probably two main factors that contributed to why I became a scientist. One of these is that I was born in Hong Kong, and I emigrated to Australia with my family when I was eight. The educational systems in Hong Kong and Australia are very different: in Hong Kong, there's a lot of pressure, and we had so much homework; in Australia, there's a lot more free time, and a lot less stress. So, I think that I might not have become a scientist without that opportunity to read, to ponder and to daydream. The second factor is that, in Australia, people have a close connection with nature, and we have really unique flora and fauna. There's also a real sense of exploration, maybe stemming from the fact that we're so far away from most other countries.

You completed your PhD at the University of Sydney, Australia. What was the focus of your doctoral studies?

My undergraduate study was in biology. With my PhD study, I moved into comparative genomics and bioinformatics. It was an exciting time to be doing my PhD because the human and mouse genomes had recently been sequenced. This led to the genome sequencing of lots of other species. Some of these were iconic Australian mammals, and I was involved in some of these genome projects, including the tammar wallaby and platypus genomes. My projects focused on understanding immune genes because they evolve rapidly and their lack of sequence conservation makes them difficult to identify. I am now working on regulatory elements that are also often poorly conserved and difficult to identify, so I think I've come full circle!

You moved from Australia to the UK for your postdoctoral work in Cambridge. What did you work on during your postdoc, and how did you find the experience of moving countries?

Yes, I was working at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Hinxton, near Cambridge, UK. After my PhD, I attended the CSHL Biology of Genomes meeting. That was so eye opening – and that's where I met one of my supervisors, Duncan Odom. Cambridge was a really exciting place to work, with such a rich history. It was hard though, because my partner was in Australia – he had just started his own lab at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. It was a difficult period, especially because of the time difference; when I was going to bed, he was just waking up. But it was a formative experience.

What brought you back to Australia?

When I was in Cambridge, I had my first child. My parents and my partner were in Australia, so I was looking for opportunities to go back. I ended up speaking to Bernie Degnan, who's an amazing marine developmental biologist at the University of Queensland doing incredible work on sea sponges, and I applied for an Australian Research Council Early Career Fellowship. I got that, so I joined his lab in Queensland.

After returning to Australia for this second postdoc, how did you know you were ready to start applying for independent positions?

I feel like it was perhaps the next logical step. When I started to apply, during my second postdoc, I had held two EMBO fellowships, and I had an Australian Research Council Early Career Fellowship as well. So, I was directing my own research, I was writing papers and grants. And I had lots of ideas I wanted to test out!

When you were starting to look for these group leader positions, what were your most important considerations?

I guess in Australia it's maybe a bit different to Europe; we don't have set times in the year when different institutes and universities advertise. It's not as predictable. So, it was a case of keeping my eye out for these opportunities when they came up. Location was important, as I wanted to be close to my parents. I have two young kids, so having family support was really important. My husband's also a scientist, and it's kind of an all-consuming job. I know many people are able to navigate this, but certainly just having family around has been really helpful for me. The scientific reputation of the institute or university was important too, as was having colleagues who are doing excellent work, and having the facilities required for our research. I also did my own research on the types of start-up funds that were available, or that were typically offered to people in Australia, and compared those to what's offered in Europe and the USA. This helped me to make sure that whatever offers I was getting were in line with my expectations, because I wanted to make sure that I was being set up well to succeed, and not struggling from the very beginning to find funding.

Can you summarise the research themes of your group at the moment?

We're interested in many different topics. One is the connection between genotype and phenotype, and the basic mechanisms of gene regulation, particularly focusing on the non-coding genome. So, we're studying enhancers and silencers along the themes of evolution and development. We've been focusing a lot on ageing and regeneration as well. So, lots of different topics.

When it came to setting up your own research group, how did you navigate the field to find your own niche while maintaining this broad set of interests?

I don't think there are many people in Australia who are working on enhancers or asking the same questions that we are asking. I think that there are also some perennial questions in genetics, development and evolution that are always very interesting. We use data science techniques to answer a lot of our questions, so I feel like maybe that's a bit of a niche in a way. We also like to try to reuse published data in creative ways. I really love papers that do that, because you can apply novel concepts. Often, the data are already there, so you can use that previously published data to answer new questions.

I like to think that biology, in a way, is data science, and, increasingly, biological systems are generating massive amounts of data

Could you tell us a bit more about the novel tools and approaches you are using to address technical challenges in your work?

I like to think that biology, in a way, is data science, and, increasingly, biological systems are generating massive amounts of data. This is coming from single-cell and spatial transcriptomics, genetics – for example, the human genome is huge, and you add epigenetic information on top of that! We use both computational and molecular tools in our work. Computationally, we're also really influenced by recent advances in deep learning. Large language models, like ChatGPT, are really impressive, and there are similar models applied to the genome. Often, it's a bit of a black box as to how these models are generating their responses, so we want to try to understand and use them not only to predict but also to interpret what's happening in the system. We also use lots of different types of animal methods. We have an aquarium here, for zebrafish, and we've now got a mouse colony where we're starting some genetic crosses as well.

What is your mentoring style for the people in your lab?

I try to listen, and I meet with everyone once a week. What I've realised is that everyone is very different and there is perhaps no one style that fits everyone the same. I think some people enjoy more independence, and this preference can depend on their career stage as well.

I think it's good to be open minded, but also to know what you want, and to know what you can and cannot compromise on before you start negotiations

What advice would you give to people starting their own labs?

I think it's good to be open minded, but also to know what you want, and to know what you can and cannot compromise on before you start negotiations. I think I'm still learning myself, but I feel like when you start managing people it's also useful to have really frank discussions about expectations, because everyone is very different, and we all have very different backgrounds, so you want to make sure that you're on the same page. Knowing your worth, and knowing what you can and cannot compromise on is important. In a lot of interview processes, you'll also meet other faculty members. I think it's important that you are interested in what they're doing and that you're able to connect with them, on a personal level as well, because they want someone who's a good colleague and a team player.

This year, you were awarded the Fenner Medal by the Australian Academy of Science in recognition of your research. What does this award mean to you?

It's a great honour, and it really reflects the work of my collaborators. Everything that I've done is a collaboration. It also reflects the support of my mentors. Receiving this award is a great motivator, and I feel like I'm still starting out, so I hope that the best is yet to come!

Did you ever consider an alternative career path?

I enjoy investigative journalism; at least I enjoy reading and I enjoy writing, but I don't know if I'd be very good at it, to be honest. I've been doing this job for too long! I like to entertain the idea that I would like to do something creative as well, like being an artist or something similar.

Finally, is there anything Development readers would be surprised to learn about you?

I used to compete and perform in Latin dance. I'm actually a very introverted person, but I think I gravitate towards doing things that challenge me and make me feel uncomfortable in a good way. And I feel like I apply this same concept to science as well, trying to push myself to do something that's just a little bit out of my comfort zone.

Emily Wong's contact details: Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Darlinghurst NSW 2010, Australia.

E-mail: [email protected]

Emily Wong was interviewed by Laura Hankins, Reviews Editor at Development. This piece has been edited and condensed with approval from the interviewee.