Dr Charis Teh - Immunologist and STEM Superstar
Dr Charis Teh is a Senior Postdoctoral Fellow (i.e Trainee Scientist) thriving in the field of immunology. Even from a young age, Charis’s creativity, involvement with nature and love of science were what she most enjoyed exploring.
Growing up in Borneo, Malaysia, Charis fondly remembers her family trips to the rainforest reserves and walks observing the wildlife including bats and monkeys. Ballet and piano were activities Charis pursued for more than 10 years. She was inspired by many people in her life including; her piano teacher, a wildlife conservationist, a doctor and a dedicated school teacher. All these people, key in the shaping of Charis’s STEM career, were incredibly passionate about their work. Charis’s wanted to have this passion in her own work.
Illness and its impact on life shaped some distinct memories from a very young age. Charis as well as other children she knew experienced infectious diseases like malaria, dengue and hand foot and mouth disease – diseases we barely hear about in developed countries! These experiences helped to shape Charis’s commitment to forging a healthier future.
Starting a career
But how would she make a healthier future? She had a fear of blood and needles, and thought that meant she wouldn’t make a good doctor. She began studying Science in University, not completely sure of what she wanted to do after school. At this point, Charis was only 17, and had taken an 8-hour flight to move to Australia all by herself.
In her first year of university, Charis was lucky enough to work with Dr Carolyn Behm who she felt connected to because of their common Malaysian ties. Most importantly, this opportunity opened up a whole new world of science research she had never known existed. They worked on a small project studying worms. Together, they made parts of worms glow green so they could look at their inner workings and this made her eager to do more research.
Finding a niche
Charis’s interest in “making a healthier future” led her to the field of immunology. She wanted to impact many diseases across the globe that affected first to third world countries. The immune system is at the heart of so many diseases, so it was the perfect field for her to follow her passion. Every creature, from the simplest sponges to complex humans are hard-wired with an immune system. It elegantly orchestrates a complex defence response to invading entities like viruses and bacteria. Charis was fascinated by the millions of different cells that act together in the immune system and how it can sometimes go wrong. She has had a chance to be involved in projects that study the immune systems in relation to diabetes, infections and most recently blood cancers.
Currently, Charis works with a multidisciplinary of team clinicians (doctors), biological scientists and bioinformaticians with a common goal to try and match blood cancers to the best treatments. Charis understands the weaknesses of the current “one size fits all” approach to cancer treatment and that what may work for one patient, may completely fail another. The team is working towards an exciting era of “personalised medicine”. This will see a shift in their capacity to tailor more accurate drug combinations for each patient. To achieve this, Charis’s team gets a small tube of blood from patients and look for clues that tell them why the cancer cells keep growing and do not die. They try to work out what the best drugs are to kill the cancer cells. This huge movement is only in its early days but with the cooperation of many teams working around the world, will hopefully soon become the reality of cancer treatment.
Travelling for work
An experience in her career that particularly stands out for when she decided to move to the USA and worked at Stanford University. Just like every person and job is unique, each place to work has a unique culture and holds the possibility of meeting lifelong friends. This already amazing experience was made even better through her exploration of Silicon Valley that was in close proximity to the university. Silicon Valley is home to companies including Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Tesla all of which have drastically changed the world in some shape or form in the last 10 years. These companies introduced us to the phenomena of social media, e-mails, Google maps and electric cars, many of which we use on a daily basis. This was a place Charis saw her passion grow. Passion is contagious and she felt amazed at living in a place where people invested in discovering and inventing new ideas. Simply buying a coffee or taking the bus to work was made enjoyable as Charis could overhear conversations of people discovering the ways they wanted to make a difference. Charis puts a lot of faith in the brilliant minds and talents of people working in STEM and believes through their cooperation, they make big differences in the way we do things. She was able to master a unique technology that allows us to study millions of cells from patients, and reveal where they have been and who they have been talking to. She has now brought the knowledge back to Melbourne and is using it better match blood cancers to its treatment.
Looking to the future
Charis’s aim for the future is to make the world a healthier place for her 1.5 year old daughter and her generation. Charis dreams big and works even harder to reach those goals. She hopes that her influence will be beyond the lab bench, instead, making an international change. Charis knows her journey is just beginning and she feels excited that so many people share her desire to make a healthy change. To young people interested in a career in STEM, Charis begs you to explore things that excite you "use Google, ask your parents and people around you, reach out to experts on Twitter. Foster your passion".