The Seeker: Missy Wong | OHSU Foundation

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Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Those are the kinds of big questions that Missy Wong, PhD, pondered as a little girl.

The daughter of a surgeon and a teacher, Wong always figured she’d go into medicine — then she watched her dad do a total knee replacement. “I was like, ‘Nope!’” she laughed. “Surgery was definitely not my thing.”

Still, with Wong’s inquisitive mind, science was a natural fit. “I’ve always been curious,” she admitted. “And I’ve always liked understanding how things function.”

Studying biology at the University of Colorado and working in a lab, she found a way to use science to make a positive impact on human life. “My parents instilled in me a desire to leave the world a better place than I found it, and cancer research seemed like a challenging way to do this.”

After receiving a PhD in molecular pathobiology at Wake Forest University, Wong trained at the Washington University School of Medicine before joining OHSU and the Knight Cancer Institute in 2001. In the Department of Cell, Developmental and Cancer Biology, she continues her pursuit of answers — in this case, to questions like, how can we tell if someone has cancer? Are there ways we can find out sooner?

Wong is currently working on a project to develop a biological marker that will lead to earlier cancer diagnosis. “If we can catch cancer early, we give the clinician the best chance to help the patient,” she explained. “Our mission is to develop new ways to detect cancer at the earliest possible stage.”

“Women bring such a unique perspective and a different voice to the conversation. I think the best way to really have progress is to listen to all of the voices.”

The work is generating promising results, and Wong said she’s grateful for the donors who have allowed her team to get this far. “Our science challenges the dogma and sits outside of the box, and novel ideas aren’t easily funded by government agencies. It takes donor funding to develop this science to the point where it is competitive for government funding.”

Throughout her quest for knowledge, Wong knows that for every “a-ha” moment, there are also plenty of setbacks. Those just motivate her to work harder. “We’re scientists, so we’re realists,” she smiled. “There are times when everything goes right and you can see the end game, and then there are times where you’re baffled. That’s when I say, ‘OK, bring it on!’”

As a mother of three, Wong knows that she’s leading by example — and she takes the responsibility seriously. “I’ve always taught my two daughters to stand up and be heard,” she said. “That lesson extends to my son, too; we need to educate our boys to pursue their dreams, but to support women as well.”