Hai-Ling Cheng
Credit: Roberta Baker

Perseverance is the ‘Ultimate Test’

She's an expert in biomaterials and biomedical engineering; but in an alternate world, she might be an artist on the streets of Paris.


Hai-Ling Cheng is a Professor at U of T’s Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering. We asked everything from what drives researchers to rediscovering Hemingway in hopes of giving you a better understanding of what goes on outside the lab for one of the best minds in Canadian research.

What do you like most about being a researcher?
The best part about being a researcher is that we are given the freedom to think and pursue our own ideas to solve problems that are dear to our hearts in one way or another. The most creative solutions often come when you’re tackling an unmet need, where the desire to solve that unmet need comes from somewhere deep within you.

I think this innate momentum – born of genuine interest or conviction – can drive people’s intellect, curiosity, and intuition to make unimaginable breakthroughs. In biomedical research, the topic of interest is usually a health issue that touches the researcher in a special way. I cannot think of any other profession that gives you this freedom and opportunity to make a real difference.

What advice would you give young researchers?
I tell my graduate students to choose a topic that genuinely interests them, to never let their current knowledge limit what they aspire to achieve, and to continue learning, always. Honesty is the most important trait a researcher must hold onto, because only then can real discoveries and progress be made.

I also tell them to persevere – this is the ultimate test – and to see the other side of failure, because failed experiments may actually point out something important we have all missed. At the end of the day, I want them to feel that they are contributing their life and career to leave a mark, to make a true difference and to make the world a better place. To do that, their heart and mind must be totally invested.

What are you reading right now?
I started reading ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by Ernest Hemingway. I read it once before when I was in my early 20’s. It’s very different reading it again now; I did not quite understand the metaphors for perseverance and dignity 20 years ago. Now, I can actually identify with the old man’s struggles.

What do you like to do for fun?
My favourite pastime is spending time with my son and nephew. It could be biking or swimming, watching a good movie at the theatres, or simply playing games with them. Simple stuff.

If you could do any profession other than your own, what would it be?
If I were not a researcher and I did not have to worry about money, I would like to be an artist living on the streets of Paris. I used to paint a lot, and I love the freedom to express my ideas and emotions through colour. I know it is 180 degrees opposite from science, but art and science are very similar in many respects – you try to find and represent the truth.

Aside from things for your survival, what item would you most want to have with you on a deserted island?
I need my music player. I cannot imagine life without music. Good music does wonders, and it is a great stress buster!

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