You first set foot in Australia back in 1990, what made you want to move to Australia?
It all started with my husband. He was selected for a postgraduate degree study in Australia as an exchange student in 1988. After 2 years apart, I joined him for a new life adventure together abroad.
You had just finished your Master of Medicine in Ophthalmology in China before you moved to Australia, where do you think you’d be today if you had stayed in China?
I appreciate the hurdles experienced during my medical career in China, because they strengthened my trust in the medical/Ophthalmology field. 1977 was a specific year in Chinese high education history as university education had previously been suspended for eleven years straight due to the Culture Revolution. That year, the university acceptance rate was only 4.7%, meaning out of 57 million entry examination participants, only 2.7 million were accepted. I was one of the first university graduates after the Culture Revolution, and I am so proud to be one of them as it means a great deal to me and my generation.
A coin has two sides. I may have missed out on some great opportunities if I had stayed in China, but I’d like to look at the positives of moving to Australia. Living in Australia has enabled me to develop new skills and gain a more worldly perspective.
Adelaide was the city you first settled in, what were your initial impressions and what was your first job like?
I thought Adelaide was beautiful and it was the perfect city for me to focus on my studies and training. On top of that, it also offered me my first job. I thought Adelaide treated me well; everyone I met was open and friendly.
I joined The Department of Ophthalmology at Flinders Medical Centre and Flinders University as a visiting fellow. Shortly thereafter, I obtained my first job in the laboratory of the same department as a part-time Research Assistant. From there, I learned many new techniques and research skills including small animal research, immunohistochemistry, cell culture and cell biology and computer skills. In addition, I was able to adapt to a different culture, immersed in a foreign environment which pushed me to learn a new language.
You were shortly awarded 2 scholarships, what were your studying and how did you manage to juggle a new job, study and personal life in Adelaide and Sydney?
South Australia Eye Bank gave me the opportunity to learn eye bank technology. I have Professor Coster and Professor Williams to thank for their support. The Eye Bank also enabled me to start a research project on corneal preservation. However, my husband had to relocate to Sydney. After consideration, I decided to follow my husband and keep the family together, especially as we didn’t have our son by our side for three and half years. As a result, I had to give up one of my scholarships in Adelaide, but fortunately I was able to transfer the other to The University of Sydney with Professor Frank Billson’s help.
In 1993, I chose the “Eye and retinal vascular development” project as my doctoral subject at the department of Ophthalmology in The University of Sydney, which has been known for the research in retinal diseases, eye development and paediatric ophthalmology.
It was challenging to manage work and family as full-time working parents, with a young child. In order to cover our living expenses, I had to take on a part time job as a cleaner in an office building to make an additional $80 a day. Our son also had to adapt by getting up early, travelling to work with me and returning home late at night. These were testing times for us, however having family around is the best support I could have.
You played a pivotal role with NSW Eye Bank after moving to Sydney in 1993. Can you share your journey with Eye Bank and highlight some key achievements?
When Professor Billson took over the Lions NSW Eye Bank in 1995, he suggested I could apply my experience and knowledge having worked at the South Australia Eye Bank, to help further improve the reconstruction and laboratory work at NSW Eye Bank. As a full-time student working part time, I was content just to be a part of the Eye Bank.
At the time, I was one of the first scientists in the laboratory of the NSW Lions Eye Bank. When I completed my PhD degree in 1998, I had two options- a full-time role in the Eye Bank, or a full-time academic researcher at the university. It was difficult for me to choose just one as I am equally passionate about the two subjects. Ultimately, I decided to take on two part time roles across each area.
In 1996, 442 corneal transplantations were completed. During my tenure at Eye Bank, we increased the number of transplantations to 800-1000 per year as of today. As a result, the waiting list was cut from more than 1,000 patients in 1995 to be able to respond based on demand.
You have devoted yourself to Ophthalmology for more than 20 years and selflessly improved the wider system to provide better services for patients in need. What is your observation on working in Australia compared to China and other countries?
In the 1990’s, during domestic reform and the open-door policy in China, more and more Chinese Ophthalmologists travelled abroad to learn new foreign technologies. Professor Billson was instrumental in developing collaboration between China and Australia’s exchange of research technologies.
Each year, corneal transplantation is continuously updating, and in conjunction, the international Eye Bank technology progresses rapidly in parallel. The Eye Bank in Australia also evolved from a single material laboratory for individual collection, identification, processing and distribution of cornea to an indispensable part of the organ tissue library. It launched a cooperative industrialised material preparation process to serve a new type of transplant surgery.
Since 1995 I devoted my time in setting up the modern Eye Bank in China. This included training Eye Bank staff initially and from 1996 onwards, new technologies to Chinese Eye Bank were introduced. During that time, I also replicated the same work improving the Eye Bank in India and Vietnam.
Statistics shows that there are 4 million people suffering from corneal blindness in China, of which 2 million people are waiting for corneal transplants, and only about 5,000 operations can be performed nationwide each year. Unfortunately, most patients with corneal disease come from impoverished backgrounds and they urgently need help, but just can’t afford the treatment. To make it worse, the public health system continues to be overwhelmed by the high volume of patients.
I am pleased to see China’s fast economic acceleration in recent years which has seen strong Chinese pharmaceutical companies emerge. Currently randomised clinical research trials are in demand; hence, my key focus is in conducting global standardised drug clinical trials and GCP training in China whilst helping set up the Eye Bank.
How and when did you first cross paths with GreenLight Clinical? What is the GreenLight Clinical journey like so far?
In 2012, I was the Clinical Manager in Vitreoretinal Group of Save Sight Institute led by A/Professor Andrew Chang, who is also one of the founders of GreenLight Clinical. In 2018, I formally joined the GreenLight Clinical team as a part-time Senior Medical Advisor. I have witnessed and was amazed by the growth of GreenLight Clinical, having evolved from a SMO with less than ten staff in 2016 to a full service, global CRO with more than 100 employees.
Until today you still distribute your time and knowledge between GreenLight Clinical, NSW Eye Bank and multiple researches. What do you want clinical research to look like in the next 5-10 years?
Clinical research has benefited from several advancements in recent decades. Expanding access to information has empowered patients to have greater opportunity in their care and a voice during the development process. Personalised medicine and precision medicine have become more important in health care and disease treatment.
I believe that clinical research is not just science. Over the decades I’ve witnessed the advancement in technology and medicine but there are many surveys indicating that there is still little known about clinical trials or that they are largely misunderstood. I would love to see clinical trials be more patient focused, transparent and integrated, merging clinical research and medical science into healthcare practice.
You have been recognised by many global organisations and received numerous awards. What is your motivation that keeps you going?
My passion in healthcare grew from my childhood. All the support and help I received along the way inspired me to do my best and help others in need.
As a young girl during the Culture Revolution, I suffered a severe illness whilst my parents were sent to the re-education camp. It was my schoolteacher who took care of me and helped me to receive medical care in hospital. In the last year of high school, it was one of my teachers who rescued a nearly lost opportunity to take the university entry exam and guided me to pursue a medical degree. I was fortunate to have support when I needed it the most from my parents and other family members, and I’ve always enjoyed helping others where I can. I am grateful that my passion is my work and my life experiences inspire me to care for my patients and help treat the sick. I look forward to every opportunity to contribute towards clinical and scientific research.