Yu-Ling Cheng began her academic career at MIT, where she was awarded a Master of Science degree in Chemical Engineering Practice in the same year as she completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering, graduating with distinction at the top of her class. From MIT, Professor Cheng moved to Stanford, with a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship, to conduct her PhD research. Although she lectured for a term at Stanford in 1987, Professor Cheng's full-time career was in research. As a project leader and later as group leader, she conducted research and product development in transdermal drug delivery and bioerodible polymer technologies for ALZA Corporation in Palo Alto, California from 1983 to 1989. Professor Cheng joined the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry at the University of Toronto in April 1989 as an Assistant Professor. She immediately excelled, gaining tenure within four years and reaching full professor status seven years after her hiring.
Professor Cheng served as Chair of the Division of Engineering Science at the University of Toronto from 2000-2005. During that time she managed a significant expansion in enrolment and put in place the administrative structure required to recruit and support the superb students that Engineering Science attracts. She undertook extensive curriculum changes that enhanced this already exceptional program and created two engineering education lecturer positions - an innovation that has served Engineering Science extremely well to this day. In 2006 she served as Acting Chair for the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry. She was elected Speaker of the Faculty Council in 2007. In 2008 Professor Cheng chaired the Dean's Task Force on Globalization. This led to the creation of the Centre for Global Engineering, of which she now serves as Director. Professor Cheng has served two short terms as Acting Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, in 2012 and 2013.
Until recently, Professor Cheng's research has centred around polymers; specifically the development of novel materials for drug delivery and other biomedical applications. Her research in drug delivery systems and materials has resulted in 13 patents and the founding technology for the spin-off company Rimon Therapeutics. Since her appointment as Director of the Centre for Global Engineering, the focus of her research has shifted to the use of engineering methods to address developing world issues. Professor Cheng is currently leading a team of engineers in project to "reinvent the toilet" with the goal of providing a sanitation solution for developing countries that can work without running water, sewer systems or electricity. Professor Cheng's team was the only Canadian group selected for the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Yu-Ling Cheng has received numerous awards for her contributions to academe. These include the President's Teaching Award and the Faculty Award from the University of Toronto, the Ontario Colleges and Universities Faculty Association (OCUFA) Teaching Award, the inaugural Breaking the Glass Ceiling Award from the University of Toronto chapter of Women in Science and Engineering, and the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities' inaugural Leadership in Faculty Teaching (LIFT) Award.