Wesley College Melbourne Australia
Wesley College Melbourne

Understanding the mysteries of the human heart and pathways to a career in STEM

Posted 20 June 2018
Norman Liaw

Wesley College alumni and medical research scientist, Dr Norman Liaw (OW2002), returned with colleagues to his alma mater to speak with senior students of Biology at the St Kilda Road Campus, about his work in particular, science in general, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) pathways more broadly.

Dr Liaw, now at the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology, University Medical Centre in Göttingen, Germany, is conducting research to better understand the human heart. Dr Liaw visited Wesley to talk with students about his research and about the myriad pathways that may lead them into STEM careers.

Pathways into STEM 

‘I completed my PhD in 2013 under the supervision of Associate Prof Salvatore Pepe at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne, then moved to Germany to undertake postdoctoral work under the guidance of Prof Wolfram-Hubertus Zimmermann,’ Dr Liaw said. ‘That was a result of my interest in the work of Prof Zimmermann on what he has termed engineered human myocardium (EHM).

‘We take human blood or skin cells and genetically reprogram them so they can then be transformed into cardiomyocytes – the cells that give heart muscle its contractile property.  We then use these cells to make EHM, essentially ring-shaped constructs that resemble human heart tissue that spontaneously beats, but also responds to external electrical stimuli.

engineered human myocardium, from Tiburcy, et al. (2017) Circulation, © 2017 American Heart Association
‘By building “human hearts” in the laboratory, we’re able to study all types of heart disease from children with congenital heart defects to older patients who are progressing into heart failure. This also allows us to test the effects of newly synthesised drugs in a safe way.

‘Throughout my university studies, we were always taught that the human heart was unable to repair itself after a heart attack.  However, it is becoming clearer every day that this is not entirely true. We are working intensively with colleagues from all over the world to find out whether there is a molecular switch that can restart regenerative processes in the damaged regions of the heart.’

Dr Liaw said research on factors contributing to STEM learning and career choices indicates that informal contact with people working in STEM fields, as well as the attitudes of family members and peers, have an influence on students’ subject choices and career aspirations. 

‘I wanted to visit Wesley and speak with senior students not only so that they could see where their current studies might lead but, because I was a student here not really so very long ago, also that the pathways they might take are very real. 

‘As career scientists, we have a responsibility in communicating what we do so that students and the general public understand that we are not all dressed in white coats, wearing goggles and mixing coloured liquids together. Since we rely heavily on government funding that is primarily tax payer-sourced to make scientific discoveries, communication should be a part of our job description.

‘When I completed my Bachelor of Science degree at Monash University, I really had no idea that I would pursue research to help children born with congenital heart defects. It was not until the final months of my PhD that I discovered the world of tissue engineering and that EHM even existed! I was truly stunned when I first saw videos of these constructs. The thing about STEM is that it can take you on some unexpected journeys.

Passion and perseverance

Dr Liaw, who didn’t actually study biology as part of his VCE program, undertook studies in biomedical science at university after completing Year 12. ‘I have always been intrigued by how the human body works,’ he said. ‘My foray into my current field developed over a 10-year period after leaving Wesley. I was never an outstanding student and there were much brighter students in the 2002 Glen Waverley cohort, but one thing I learned was that, with perseverance, you can achieve anything. There is always some unconventional route you can take to get to where you want to be. Even though it may take longer than expected and not be the easiest path, it’s still possible!’

Head of the Faculty of Sciences, Grant Eyles, said Dr Liaw’s visit gave current Wesley students the opportunity to see some of the real paths to which STEM can lead. ‘It has been hugely beneficial for our students to hear from Dr Liaw, who was a student just like them here at Wesley not so very long ago,’ Mr Eyles said. 

‘Dr Liaw’s career trajectory is a great example to students. It shows that they are best served by following their passions, maintaining a broad subject range but being ready to explore their interests when the opportunity arises. The important thing is to not shut doors to further study prematurely through subject choices at VCE or IB level.

‘Having the opportunity to hear from Dr Liaw not only about where his research has led him, but also the path he travelled to reach this point encourages our students to dream and aspire. To hear from Dr Liaw, a Wesley student who followed his passion and now finds himself at the cutting edge of stem cell research, makes things tangible for our students.’

Dr Liaw’s advice to students? ‘Go into a STEM-related field if that interests you, get the basic qualifications you require to work in that field, but always be on the lookout for what truly excites you ‘It can be difficult for current students to know what they are passionate about, what drives them to get out of bed every morning, or to know about everything that is possible out there. We live in a world where new discoveries are made every single day. Something like 90 per cent of all the data in the world since the beginning of time was generated in only the past two years – that’s just mind boggling.’

High demand for collaborative STEM specialists

According to Dr Liaw, STEM is now so deeply integrated that there is a huge demand for STEM specialists to work as part of interdisciplinary groups. ‘A gleaming example is my current research group in Göttingen. 

Prof Zimmermann’s team works at the interface of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. In collaboration with physicists, we are interested in the mechanics of EHM as this enables us to evaluate how stable and compliant they are when grafted onto a human heart that constantly moves and beats. In collaboration with chemists, we are developing small molecules that are more specific in eliciting a desired physiological effect. Without mathematicians, we would be unable to narrow down biologically relevant targets to further investigate. Biology in the 21st century simply wouldn’t be possible without such expert collaborations.’

As Mr Eyles explained, STEM education at Wesley takes an integrated approach to learning. ‘STEM education is all about students applying technical skills and knowledge using higher-order critical and creative thinking to solve real-world problems. Rather than any one subject, STEM education is about developing skills and knowledges that transcend subject knowledge. It’s also more about how you see the world, problem solve and innovate than about any one body of knowledge.’

 ‘It’s essential that we foster students’ skills and knowledge, both for themselves as individuals and for Australia’s broader economic benefit. Many of our students go on to study in the fields of science, medicine and allied health, environmental science, engineering and construction.’

That’s also a view promoted by Prof Alan Finkel, Australia's Chief Scientist and guest speaker at the 2018 Wesley College Samuel Alexander Lecture, to be held in Adamson Hall at the St Kilda Road campus in August. According to Prof Finkel, Australia needs more students pursuing STEM subjects in Years 10 to 12 and enrolling in STEM-related courses at university. 

Dr Liaw and his colleagues are in Melbourne to present their latest research findings at the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. ‘I thought it’d be opportune to see how my old school is getting on,’ Dr Liaw said. ‘By pure coincidence, Jack Moshakis contacted me earlier this year to reconfirm that I was receiving Lion in the mail while living overseas. That led to this opportunity to speak to current Wesley students and staff.  Some things just organically work out!  We are also visiting my old colleagues at MCRI, and holding brainstorming meetings to see how we can develop collaborations between Göttingen and Melbourne.’

Prof Alan Finkel will speak on the need to ensure Australia's competitiveness in a rapidly advancing technological world, by developing joined-up approaches to STEM in schools through policies that set minimum national requirements for what teachers learn, partnerships and other systems to connect school principals with industry leaders, more vocational education and training subjects in schools, and an online gateway for companies wanting to help schools.

Book to attend the 2018 Wesley College Samuel Alexander Lecture with Australia's Chief Scientist Alan Finkel. 

Pictured, top, Dr Norman Liaw speaking at Wesley College; centre, engineered human myocardium, from Tiburcy, et al. (2017) Circulation, © 2017 American Heart Association, Inc, reproduced with permission.

« Return to news listing