3 HKUMed Women Scientists on What Drives Their Success
Dr Eva Ho-tung became HKUMed’s first woman medical graduate in 1927, opening the door for thousands of other women to follow in her footsteps.
Almost 100 years on, we spoke to three women at HKUMed — a professor, an alumna and a current PhD student — to mark International Women’s Day and to learn about their careers as doctors and medical researchers.
Professor Ava Kwong, was the first woman to become Clinical Professor in Surgery in Hong Kong. The Chief of Division of Breast Surgery at Queen Mary Hospital. She has embraced ‘starting from zero’ at multiple points in her career, challenging herself to learn unfamiliar skills and chart a new direction, such as founding the Hong Kong Hereditary Breast Cancer Family Registry in 2007.
HKUMed alumna Dr Amy Cheung graduated from the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery programme in 2009. She is an orthopaedic surgeon at Queen Mary Hospital specialising in joint replacement surgery. In 2022, she won the SICOT Research Award for the Best Paper from a Female Researcher/Clinician.
Cherlie Yeung, a year 3 PhD student is studying cancer biology in the Department of Pathology. She has a close relationship with her supervisor Professor Judy Yam and her mentor Susan Mao, a Research Assistant Professor, describing them as her “companions” as she works to develop a scientific mindset.
How have you made a difference in your field?
Prof Kwong: Being a doctor, you obviously make a difference with the patients first, but you learn during your career that you have to care for them as a whole. Doing genetics changed my career quite a lot. People see a surgeon as someone who goes in, operates and comes out again. When I started doing genetics, I started getting to know the family, because I had to test the family. As a breast cancer specialist and a surgeon, we help them in every way.
Dr Cheung: I specialise in joint replacement. So my main work is with patients with end stage arthritis of the joints which can bring about significant pain, suffering and disability. I believe that the work we do for our patients gives them a chance to live a pain-free and meaningful life with restored mobility and function.
Yeung: My field is cancer biology, in particular the cancer microenvironment. We have identified a protein, nidogen 1, which is highly expressed in small extracellular vesicles derived from metastatic hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cells. This is the first time this protein has been reported to be highly expressed in HCC-small EV.
Describe your greatest strength.
Prof Kwong: Generally, I am a very happy person, very positive. Being a surgeon is very hard work and being an academic surgeon is not easy. When you’re positive, you see things differently. I am known for smiling all the time, so much so that my seniors will ask “Are you sure you’re busy?” If you’re positive, when things go wrong, you manage to break through it, you find ways to solve the problem.
Yeung: I have been pretty enthusiastic about science since I was a young kid. During secondary school, I developed more of an interest in biology, cancer biology and the medical field. During research, you will experience a lot of failure, so if you aren’t enthusiastic enough about your work, you will be discouraged very quickly.
Dr Cheung: My greatest strength is my willingness to accept when I’ve been wrong, my desire to learn things and to improve upon the current situation. I’ve learnt the most through my own experiences as well as the experience of others.
What’s the greatest challenge you’ve overcome?
Yeung: One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced during my PhD was actually something I created for myself. I was focused on external rewards — how many awards I could get, how many papers I could publish — but then this mentality made me lose track of what I was doing, it was no longer about the research. I realised that I wasn’t happy in the lab. My mentor Susan noticed the change in me and suggested I don’t force it. I realised that I should focus more on the joy of scientific discovery, instead of the other factors that had made me unhappy.
Dr Cheung: I have a four-year-old child, so the greatest challenge I’ve had to overcome was balancing having a full-time job as an arthroplasty surgeon and a researcher with being a new mother. The first year was particularly difficult and very challenging. Trying to fit in a pumping schedule with a full day of surgery and clinic is physically and mentally challenging. It pushed me to the brink of what I can handle. But luckily, I’ve been very blessed to have a wonderful family and very supportive colleagues and a supportive network who stood by me and helped shoulder the burden.
Prof Kwong: I started a women’s chapter in the College of Surgeons because we found a lot of female students don’t want to become surgeons. They say they want quality of life, that it’s too hard, that they want a family. I love my job, I don’t see it as a chore. I wanted to show them that you can still have a life as a surgeon. Without examples they feel it’s not that easy. When I became a professor, I didn’t expect that students would write to me saying they saw me doing this so they think they can do it too. It does make a difference. It’s nice to start off a little road for them.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #EmbraceEquity. How are you embracing equity?
Yeung: I’ve never considered my gender an obstacle to pursuing a scientific career. I was brought up in an environment where I was never considered lesser for being a girl. I believe that if we don’t discriminate between male and female that much, just like how my parents think there’s no difference between my and my brother’s abilities, then I believe this is a way for us to embrace equity.
Dr Cheung: I am embracing equity by challenging traditional stereotypes and encouraging an inclusive and safe environment for patients and colleagues. In Hong Kong we are quite lucky that [the stereotype of orthopaedic surgeons mostly being men] is not such a big deal. If you do want to go into orthopaedics and you’re qualified and you’re willing, you get the chance.
I’m benefitting from the legacy of some of the women who’ve paved the way. Just being in the position where you’re doing a good job sends the message: ‘This is normal, this is nothing out of the ordinary, this is achievable’.
Prof Kwong: I would never want to say that men and women are equal because we’re not. We have different fortes. It’s often said women are emotional, but being emotional can be a forte. When we lead, we lead differently. Subconsciously, I was already embracing equity. Leading a team is like being a mother, it’s not giving one team member more than the other, but recognising each of their strengths.
What advice do you have for women and girls who aspire to become scientists?
Yeung: For women or men, you first need the basic knowledge. You need to study hard and you need to read more published papers. Most of the famous magazines — Nature, Science, Cell — have Instagram accounts. If I’m busy, I will scroll through to see what the most popular topics are, and if I’m interested, I’ll go read the entire text.
Dr Cheung: Learn as much about yourself as you can — your interests, your strengths and your weaknesses. I also advise that people are proactive in seeking opportunities to pursue their interests within and outside the world of medicine so they can get to know themselves a bit more and make the most informed choices.
Prof Kwong: As a doctor, the job satisfaction comes from not just curing people but also the process. For a scientist, a lot of the experiments you do won’t work. I remember my cell culture dying. Scientists have to be persistent, not give up and be open-minded. Being a scientist-doctor is super enjoyable because you get the best of both worlds. You could be very tired from a long clinic with patients or operating, then you can get to do your laboratory work and write papers and have a second wave of energy. Or you could get very stuck writing that paper and go back to your patients and enjoy the interaction.
These three talented women provide just a snapshot of the breakthroughs being made by women doctors and researchers at HKUMed. Check out some of their work here.