wai fung cheong

5 Questions with Wai-Fung Cheong, Director of Medical Affairs at Abbott Structural Heart

Wai-Fung Cheong grew up in Kuantan, a beach community in Malaysia. After earning a physics degree as an undergraduate, Cheong received a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where she earned a master’s degree before moving to UT Austin to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering. Cheong worked under AJ Welch in the field of lasers, tissue optics, and light transport in tissue and graduated in 1990. She worked in academia and two startups before taking a position with Abbott, where she currently serves as Director of Medical Affairs in Abbott Structural Heart.

What’s it like to work at Abbott?

I came to Abbott Vascular in 2006. An ex-colleague approached me to join him and manage the clinical translational science efforts. I worked with both R&D and clinical groups to evaluate new therapies for treatment of infarcted myocardium, diabetic neuropathy, and drug-coated stents and balloons in human feasibility studies. A few years later, I moved to the development of pivotal clinical trials targeted at regulatory approval of products by regulatory agencies such as the FDA.

Since then, my career transitioned to clinical marketing, where I worked on using clinical evidence to help commercialize various company products. Today I work in medical affairs, which deals with managing medical information requests, clinical/medical support, and general data support.

What do you love about your work?

I experience bringing lab research into testing in humans via clinical trials. There are always failures and successes. But when there is success, we give patients a new therapeutic option. That is exciting.

What prompted you to choose industry after getting your Ph.D., rather than academia?

Industry was far from my mind. I thought I was going to work in academia, and I did that, briefly where I was able to work with and play with scientific ideas. But in academia, you never really know if those ideas will see the light of day and be able to help a patient. This was the key driving reason for me to move into industry.

The other reason was my relocation to Silicon Valley to join my husband. In the Bay Area, I started working with people from Stanford who were very entrepreneurial. This started my pathway to industry. This was twenty years ago, and it was exciting. All around me, people were taking their ideas, turning them into startup companies and seeing if those ideas would work. I worked for 2 startups in Silicon Valley before coming to Abbott.

What were some of the most memorable experiences you had at UT?

UT Austin gave me my best times in academia. My supervisor was AJ Welch, who is one the best professors to work for. My experience was memorable because Dr. Welch, Dr. Keneth Diller and others were not just professors, they were mentors and scientists. Dr. Welch, in particular, fosters good work-life balance and was a father figure, professor, mentor, teacher, and friend.

How did your time at UT/BME prepare you?

For one, it started me on a career path I couldn’t really imagine. I didn’t know what I wanted, and I figured it out by excluding things I didn’t want along the way.

With the UT Austin BME program, I found the intersection of science and medicine, which is what I was looking for. When I was a student, biomedical engineering was still very new to people. Finding jobs at that time wasn’t easy. People said: I know what a civil engineer does, or a what a computer science major does, but not a biomedical engineer. Today everyone wants to major in biomedical engineering because of the fabulous cross functional training is fantastic—especially at UT Austin.