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Personal profile

Research Biography

Dr Yee Lian Chew, ‘the worm lady’, uses the roundworm C. elegans to study how neurochemical signals in the nervous system work together to coordinate complex behaviours. An NHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellow, Yee Lian uses C. elegans – one millimetre long with only 300 neurons, yet 80% genetically identical to humans – to identify neurochemical signalling pathways that can be targeted for treatment of neurological conditions such as chronic pain. An early career academic, Yee Lian earned her BSc (2010) and PhD (2015) from the University of Sydney. In 2015, she moved to Cambridge UK to study worms in colder weather, at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. She returned to Australia in 2019 as a teaching-research academic at the University of Wollongong and is currently a Mary Overton Senior Research Fellow at Flinders University.

Outside the joy of experiments, Yee Lian is a budding science communicator. She has given public lectures at National Science Week, run a children’s outreach program at the Cambridge Science Festival, recorded a podcast, and filmed an Elevator Pitch for ABC Science. She is now part of the 2021-2022 cohort of Superstars of STEM, a program run by Science & Technology Australia to promote the profile of women STEM professionals. Currently the Chair of the EMCR Forum Executive supported by the Australian Academy of Science, Yee Lian also aims to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in academia by removing barriers to retention for minoritised groups. In 2021, she was awarded a SA Young Tall Poppy award in recognition of her science communication and research profile.

Research Expertise

Research Plain summaryWhat happens to our brain when we learn something? When we learn that knives are sharp, so we have to handle them carefully – or when we learn that eating pineapples makes us ill, so maybe we should avoid munching on them – we gain new knowledge and memories. When we learn something, we suddenly don’t gain a new brain or grow 500 new brain cells. But something changes. In our lab, we study how learning and gaining new memories alters how brain cells signal to each other. We find that learning triggers the release of neurochemical signals that can have wide-ranging impacts on brain regions that control movement, or the ability to sense the environment. Some of these neurochemicals can also have very specific effects on behaviour. We use the worm brain to understand these chemical changes, hoping that we can translate our research on the tiny worm brain to the much bigger brain of humans, which may change the way we manage and treat conditions like neurodegeneration and chronic pain.


Nerve cells (neurons) are highly interconnected, which brings about a dilemma: a signal propagating through a neuron that is connected to many partners can take many possible paths – so how is the eventual path, and the resulting behavioural response, determined? This path is normally robustly selected, suggesting that “rules” exist to ensure that a particular external cue yields a consistent result. However, under new environmental conditions, the chosen neural path must be reconfigured in order to trigger new survival behaviours. For all behaviours, especially those dependent on prior experience, the ability to reconfigure neural circuits is critical to enable dynamic responses to environmental changes. The path through which a signal propagates in the nervous system can be influenced through factors known as “neuromodulators”. These molecules specifically alter the composition of neural circuits, thereby changing the path and resulting behavioural outputs . However, the principles of how chemical signals bring about specific functional changes in neural circuits is largely unknown, representing a key gap in our understanding of nervous system function.

The research vision of the lab is to reveal fundamental concepts of neuromodulation within neural circuits. We will utilise the power of the nematode model Caenorhabditis elegans, the best-characterised experimental nervous system, to characterise the signals that are required to reorganise neuronal circuits during learning and experience-dependent behaviours.

We are particularly interested in neurological conditions in which changes to individual neurons or circuits can lead to pathology or disease. Currently we are focussing on chronic pain (research funded by NHMRC and Rebecca L Cooper foundation) and neurodegenerative disease.

Research Interests






Education/Academic qualification

PhD, University of Sydney

Award Date: 26 Mar 2015

Bachelor (Honours), University of Sydney

Award Date: 1 Dec 2010


  • Registered

Research Areas

  • Molecular biosciences

Supervisory Interests

  • Animal models
  • Animal behaviour
  • Neuroscience


  • RC0321 Neuroscience. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry
  • neurosciences
  • Neuropeptides
  • Caenorhabditis elegans
  • Neuromodulators


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