Dandan Zhu, PhD, MD


You can find her on Twitter @DandanZhu8


  • Undergrad — Clinical Medicine, Southeast University of China, 1998-2003
  • Master — Southeast university of China, 2005-2008, Radiology and nuclear medicine
  • PhD — Monash University, 2012-2016, Stem cell research

Current job title: Postdoctoral researcher

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

My interest in clinical research started when I was completing my Masters in China. At the very beginning, I did it because it was something I “had to do” as a part of my graduation, but then I found that clinical research was so helpful in every aspect of clinical medicine including efficacy evaluation, comparison of existing medical technologies and disease prevention and prediction. I continued to pursue my interest in research after I finished my Masters. Later on, while I was gaining clinical experience, I saw a lot of unmet medical needs. This further drove my interests toward medical research, especially in the translational field. This led to my decision to do a PhD in translational medical research.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

When I was looking for a PhD position overseas, Dr Guobing Chen helped me a lot. I was introduced to him, as he was the husband of one of my former colleagues. At that time, there were very few people in my city who went overseas for a PhD, Guobing was one of them. He was undertaking his PhD at the Australian National University and it was his thesis writing period. He gave me a lot of advice regarding the PhD application and was a great support when I was going through a down time.

Another person who helped and inspired me is Prof Rebecca Lim. She was my PhD supervisor and I currently work as a postdoc in her group. She has been an ongoing mentor for me as she helped me with my research, but more importantly, she taught me how to plan my career, how to balance work and family, how to supervise students, and how to cope with work situations professionally. I would say she is one of my role models.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

From the completion of my PhD to now, I have a had a few major doubts throughout my career which included what I really want to do. I was always clear about my goals before doing my PhD, but it has been a bit unclear since I started my PhD. I started to think about it a lot during my second year of my PhD, when I could handle my PhD project better. At the time, there were two career pathways for me to take, one was to return to the hospital as a clinician, the other was to continue research. Between the two options, I was sure that I was more interested in medical research (translational research), but I was not sure what exact translational research I wanted to do. At that time, the lab or the whole centre was doing majority pre-clinical studies and I wasn’t that passionate about this. Although I wasn’t clear about the detailed pathway for my career in the future, I knew it would be in research, so I focused on my PhD project and built on my scientific skills, including scientific thinking, related knowledge and techniques. In the meantime, I used my clinical knowledge and skills in my projects to work with an animal model and looked at more clinically related measurements. It was successfully translated to clinical trials.

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

After I finished my PhD, I continued my projects as a postdoc. After a year working as a postdoc, I was understanding more about what I wanted to do. I wanted to use both my research experience and my clinical experience in translational research. The first two things that came to my mind were clinical trials and MSL (medical science liaison) because it is so obvious that these two would fit perfectly with my experience. I volunteered at the clinical trial governance department outside of my work time and was trying to look for volunteer positions in clinical trial centres. I knew the whole workflow and the qualifications and responsibilities involved in clinical trials. I talked to my former colleagues who was doing MSL job in Pharma. However, I couldn’t see myself in these two areas.

Then some opportunities were emerging in our group, our cell therapies were moving into a few clinical trials, and commercialisation was the next step if looking forward to future clinical use. This inspired me totally, the reason for my choice from a clinician to a translational scientist is to look for new therapies that can be used in patients, and this commercialisation stage is a key to translate the promising lab scale treatment to clinical scale “real” treatment for patients.

So now I have been involved in the commercialization of research for one and a half years, it was different doing commercial research in a medical institute compared to in big Pharma. I enjoy it and believe it is my career focus in the long-term.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

Our group are almost all females, and we like Yoga. We used to invite Yoga teachers coming to our institute to run classes during lunch break on a weekly basis. We also like games that need teamwork. We often have game night especially during conferences when we share accommodation. We even bring games to the conference site to make new friends.

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

From my own experience, I would share the following advice for someone who is just starting off their career pathway.

  • It is normal if your career path doesn’t stick to your original plan. Don’t panic and think about where your passion is and what kind of person you want to be. There are a lot more jobs you can do than you think. Some look irrelevant to a science degree, but you will find that what you have learned from science is so useful in these jobs, such as scientific thinking, planning and problem-solving skills.
  • Work hard and play hard. Having necessary time off work is really important to ensure you come back recharged and work better.
  • Networking. Take advantage of opportunities (conferences, seminars and social activities) to network with people.
  • Be brave and confident to show people your own research. You may be afraid to talk to field leaders because you think what you are doing is too simple for them, or you may be reluctant to talk to the lay audience because it may be too professional for them. Be confident and talk to anyone who would like to listen to your research, you know what you are doing, and people are willing to listen and are usually nice and helpful.
  • Ask for help. New starters will always face all kinds of difficulties. Don’t be shy to ask for help from your supervisors, mentors, colleagues, families and friends. Be honest to yourself and be honest to them, ask and accept their help.

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