McMaster graduate well on her way to realizing childhood dreams

A grid of two photos. One shows a woman smiling directly at the camera and the other shows her wearing a convocation gown and posing by a bust of William McMaster.

Difei (Fay) Zheng will be graduating from the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Biology and Pharmacology Co-op program. (All images courtesy Fay Zheng.)

Growing up in Shanghai, Difei (Fay) Zheng had three career aspirations — fashion designer, teacher and a role in the health care field where she could help people.   

Zheng, who is set to graduate from the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Biology and Pharmacology Co-op program this week, has made serious inroads on all three fronts during her five years at McMaster.  

She says that while she didn’t feel her drawing skills were up to snuff for the world of fashion design, she was able to channel her artistic energy through the Artists at McMaster student club.  

Knitting, crocheting and paper quilling helped her fill her downtime when not studying — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — and it was also a way to meet people from outside her program.  

A grid of three photos of the same person. In one they are playing a ukulele, crafting and in a karate uniform.
Zheng’s advice to other students? “Be yourself and explore.” In addition to joining a student crafting club, she taught herself to play the ukelele and recently took up karate at McMaster’s gym, making new friends and earning her orange belt in the process.

Zheng studied Life Sciences for two years before entering the Honours Biology and Pharmacology Co-op program.  

She also added a minor in mathematics, which led to a teaching role.   

Associate Professor Aaron Childs saw the passion she brought to the classroom after Zheng TA’d a mathematics and statistics course in second year.  

Childs encouraged her to apply to the McMaster Peer-Run Inclusive Math Experience (MacPRIME) Development and Instructional Team led by Assistant Professor Caroline Junkins. 

MacPRIME is a four-week virtual bridge program for incoming Mathematics and Statistics students. Senior undergraduates mentor incoming first-years and help them get up to speed on how math is taught at the university level.  

One of the priorities of the program is to attract more international students, and Zheng was uniquely positioned to lend her insight, having learned math in multiple ways both in China and at the Ontario private high school she attended.  

“It’s a very rewarding experience,” says Zheng. “To help the students and to at least lift some of their stress. And we hope that this kind of set up for a bridging program can be adopted for other departments as well because we see that is has value.” 

Zheng recently won the Teaching Assistant of the Year Award from the McMaster Students Union — an award she dedicated to her dad for his mentorship and for being her “companion in math.”  

“I never viewed it as ‘I am teaching the students,’ but rather I am learning with them,” says Zheng. “I am glad my little pieces of wisdom can empower and inspire our students.”  

The graduate’s skills as a teacher show when she explains the research she conducted as part of her undergraduate thesis.  

Working in the Chen-Huizinga Lab, Zheng designed and optimized a novel diagnostic tool while investigating gastrointestinal motility disorders (digestive problems that result when the nerves or muscles of the gut do not work in a coordinated way). 

Difei (Fay) Zheng posing by a screen that is displaying a PowerPoint presentation

For Zheng, convocation is not only a chance to celebrate all these accomplishments, but it also means reuniting with her parents, who she didn’t see in person during her five years of study.  

The pandemic and travel and time restrictions kept them apart, and Zheng says she is eager to show her parents, who recently flew in from China, McMaster’s campus and all the places around Hamilton she has discovered.  

The family even recreated the 2019 photo the three of them took on the day they dropped Zheng off at the Matthews Hall residence. 

Two photos side-by-side that each show a daughter and her parents smiling at the camera
Then and now: Zheng and her parents at the start and end of her five-year-long undergraduate journey at McMaster.

This Fall, Zheng will continue her clinical research journey in the Chen-Huizinga Lab as a master’s candidate. 

“I’m very excited,” says Zheng. “I love working with people in the clinic and meeting with patients.” 

And while she says she is still figuring out exactly where in the health care landscape she wants to work, it’s another step forward in fulfilling that childhood dream of helping people.  

“It’s fun to realize that it kind of all fell into place,” says Zheng. “I’m very grateful for everything and all the people I met along the way.” 

Click here for stories, videos and highlights from Spring 2024 convocation ceremonies and celebration events

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