Interview with Dr Shyuan Ngo, AIBN, The University of Queensland
Written by Dr Narelle Tunstall, Managing Editor, Graduate Research Impact
This Spring, research scientist Dr Shyuan Ngo, her research collaborator Dr Derik Steyn, and quite a few of the PhD students they supervise, will be taking part in the FightMND 27 Challenge to raise funds for the fatal neurological condition Motor Neuron Disease (MND).
Over 27 days, they’ll be challenged with walking, running, or cycling as far as they can.
Because once someone is diagnosed with MND, their average life expectancy is just 27 months – and Dr Ngo and the team are determined to do something about it. Both in and out of the laboratory.
Fighting MND in the laboratory
Dr Ngo started waging her fight against MND, also known as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), in the laboratory in 2009.
After completing her PhD in ‘basic’ neuroscience research, investigating the molecular intricacies of how synapses link the spinal cord to skeletal muscle cells, she knew she wanted to have a ‘translational edge’ to her research program.
“I wanted my research to make it into the clinic where it could really make a difference,” she says.
And make a difference she does.
Now a mid-career researcher, her work has grown to run across pre-clinical laboratory studies at the University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, and clinical research studies through collaborations at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital and the Wesley Hospital.
Shu, as most people know her, is interested in understanding the impact of metabolic dysfunction upon neurodegenerative processes. By exploring how changes in energy metabolism affects the course of MND, her group is hoping to develop therapies that can intervene.
“A cure is the ultimate goal but first we need to better understand the disease,” she says.
“First, we just want to be able to slow it down, improve quality of life, and maybe even stop it progressing.”
One of her recent studies into the energy needs in MND has shown that people living with MND use more energy than expected. Her data shows that the skeletal muscle of MND patients becomes energy hungry, and that this might cause the overall increase in energy needs in people living with MND.
Next, they want to understand the relationship between the overall energy needs of MND patients and the energy needs of their nerve cells and skeletal muscle. They also want to understand the bigger picture by looking at how the patient’s daily activity and dietary intake impacts their energy balance. Understanding that could potentially lead to personalised therapies that match the precise energy needs of individual MND patients.
So that’s the next step in Shu’s research, but I want to get back to the 20,000 steps she’s doing each day on top of her research.
The FightMND 27 Challenge is a significant commitment when running a multi-site research program with a growing lab group, and this challenge is not the first time Shu has stepped beyond the lab to help fight MND.
Fighting MND in the community
While Shu’s talent as a research scientist is making significant impacts on MND research from the laboratory, her work ethic, compassion and energy as a volunteer and fundraiser is making an impact too.
For the past 9 years Shu has volunteered with the local Queensland MND and Me Foundation.
In addition to the 27 challenge, over the recent Queen’s birthday long weekend in Queensland, Shu and Derik Steyn, who happens to also be her husband, drove over 700 kms from Brisbane to Bundaberg and back to raise awareness of MND.
That’s a good 5 hours each way. On her weekend. On top of 20,000 steps per day!
And there’s a whole bunch of other challenges she’s completed over her 9 years of volunteering. Her energy seems boundless. But she tells me the toughest challenge she’s done is riding 1000 kms. “I had to learn to ride a road bike first!” she laughed.
Even over the phone, her dynamism is unmistakable.
I ask her why she spends her weekends doing these challenges when life as an academic is busy enough.
“It’s hard not to get sucked in,” she says.
Stepping into MND patient clinics
Shu tells me that since 2015, her team has been conducting research with patients in the MND clinic.
“We spend 3 hours with each patient. After each research visit, we have morning tea and a debrief, sharing information, answering questions and talking about the latest research trials.”
She says patients love being part of the research and coming back to see the research team. “The research program is also really valuable to the patients in that they get opportunities to share their concerns and get additional access to the clinics and neurologists,” she says.
“Over their visits we get to know the patients really well,” says Shu. “They get progressively weaker, until they can no longer come in. These people know the research is unlikely to help them personally but they give up their time – their limited time – to try to help the next person. That altruism gives you faith in humanity.”
Shu adds that the research clinics are also really important for her students.
“Students see what’s happening in the clinic and they can connect what they’re doing in the lab with the reality. They get to see the impact the disease has on people, and then they want to do more.”
Shu is quick to note they don’t actually make their students volunteer – “They want to!”
But she definitely sees it as a good thing. “I’ve seen volunteering and the interactions students have with patients and their families have a great impact on their confidence as scientists and their ability to speak about their research clearly.”
Stepping up as a PhD supervisor
Just like everything she does, Shu clearly puts a lot of effort into being an active and engaged PhD supervisor. It’s clear to me from our conversation that building an effective and happy team is important to her. But it’s a skill.
“You have to learn how to supervise,” she says.
We discuss the challenges, rewards and responsibilities of supervising the next generation of research scientists.
“I want to make sure I build their confidence in science, rather than specific skills like doing a western blot. With confidence it’s amazing to see where they can go,” she says.
Shu seems both proud and excited when she tells me one of her PhD students has recently, “for the first time in Australia, turned skin cells from MND patients directly into motor neurons”. Growing human motor neurons in the lab is an important tool as you can’t take samples of these neurons from living people to study, but you can take skin samples.
This stem cell research is another of many lines of research Shu is pursuing in her lab. We discuss how important PhD students are to conducting the research. She admits: “I’ve now become the academic who spends little time in the lab and most time writing grants.”
She says: “PhD students are such an important part of research, they work hard to generate the data that will form part of the next big idea.”
Shu talks enthusiastically about the expanding areas of her research, which now also includes gut health. There’s clearly so much more she and her team want to explore – hence her time spent chasing research funding.
As we chat, I try not to dwell on what this incredible researcher could do if she wasn’t spending so much time pursuing funding. It’s clear Dr Ngo doesn’t dwell; she just ties up her shoelaces and gets on with her fundraising, because she knows how important more research is for people living with MND and their families.
Before we finish up she relays one final story from the MND clinic. She tells me: “One of our students asked people living with MND what activities they think we should do for the 27 Challenge and a lot of responses were, the little things (such as walking), these are the things we miss.”
While the long-term impact of Shu’s research can’t possibly be known, there’s no doubt that in the meantime – as long as she’s funded – she’ll continue making an enormous professional and personal impact on the students and patients around her.
If you want to help Australian researchers do more research, you can support the current Fight MND 27 challenge by donating here: https://hub.fightmnd.org.au/27-challenge/the-steyngo-labs-1
(Please note: funds go to the organisation for competitive disbursement, not directly to the Steyn/Ngo group).