From Diploma to Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School

Biomedical Science graduate Selwin Wu tells us why he is passionate about cancer research. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. 


What are you most passionate about?         

I am excited about the current advances in cancer biology and mechanobiology. In particular, I am passionate about uncovering the fundamental principles of how cancer cells break free from their tumour origin and subsequently migrate to other parts of the human body. 

What awards have you received at University?

I received several awards, including the Dean's commendation for high achievement. Of course, the most rewarding ones were the University of Queensland Research Scholarship, International Research Tuition Award and IMB postgraduate top up scholarship for my tuition fees and stipend towards my PhD programme, with no strings attached. The 2010-2013 scholarships covered the full amount of tuition at AUD$30,000 per annum and provided approximately AUD$29,000 of living allowances yearly. 

Tell me about your undergraduate course, and the work / research you did at the University of Queensland.

My undergraduate and postgraduate biomedical science courses at the University of Queensland were extremely flexible and the programme gave me the freedom to choose the modules that made up my degree. I double majored in biochemistry and microbiology and then graduated with first class honors in developmental biology. Also, the research-intensive nature of UQ courses provided me with a combined research and studying experience throughout the programme. At UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience I took up research projects, where I applied interdisciplinary approaches to solve interesting biological questions. During the course of study, I had the chance to collaborate with statisticians and physicists to tackle cell biological research problems.

What kind of research are you doing now? 

My current research at Harvard seeks to understand how the growth potential of invasive cancer cells are suppressed. Research into growth control in cancer cells is important as it provides valuable insights into developing diagnostics and treatment strategies for cancer.

What’s exciting about the field you’re now in?

During my PhD at UQ, I uncovered how cancer cells that are growing in a population exert forces and pull on their neighbouring cancer cells. This was previously poorly characterised, due to limitations in earlier technology to quantify and visualize such pulling forces. I found that "reprogramming" of these pulling forces between cancer cells by specific genetic mutations, causes the cancer cells to be expelled from its original population and become more “invasive”, potentially leading to the spread of cancer. 

What’s a typical day like for you?

A typical day for me involves meetings and brainstorming with my colleagues and mentor on scientific issues. Besides tutoring coursework and supervising undergraduate research students, planning and performing imaging and biochemical experiments are integral to my daily schedule.

How did the diploma course at the School of Applied Science prepare you for University?

The lectures and practical classes at TP were useful for building my theoretical foundation in the life sciences.  It was the internship programme and major project of the diploma that provided me with a valuable insight and experience of the life science industry. The last semester of my diploma involved taking up a research project at the A*Star research institute, IMCB. My internship was then extended by A*star with a laboratory assistantship, which lasted for a year. The work experience at A*Star equipped me with the technical, communication and research skills to take up more challenging research projects at the University of Queensland, Australia.

Any advice for students considering a career in the life sciences?

A research career in the life sciences involves a tremendous amount of hard work and creativity to make it to the PhD, postdoctoral level and beyond. Although the financial rewards are less apparent compared to other professions such as business and engineering, nonetheless I have received a great deal of job satisfaction after ‘jumping’ through so many hurdles in academic research.

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