Lai-Ming Ching was born in Canton, China, and moved to New Zealand with her family at the age of five. They initially lived in Papatoetoe before they settled in Howick several years later. Lai-Ming became interested in immunology at the age of thirteen when she read a biography of Louis Pasteur, the 'grandfather of vaccines'. As the 'body's own natural defence mechanism', she thought immunology was the way to go. She describes the excitement of being part of 'this new boost of immunotherapeutic approaches to cancer'.
Although Lai-Ming was interested in becoming a doctor, Auckland did not yet have a medical school and her parents would not allow her to move to Dunedin. She decided to pursue medical research and undertook a BSc, MSc (Hons), and PhD in Cell Biology at the University of Auckland. At that time, Lai-Ming's parents did not feel further education was necessary for girls and 'it was a fight for me to get back to university'. She advises graduate students who work in her lab: 'without the passion, a four-year PhD is a long time'. She is careful to select students who have the passion and the drive that will carry them through the 'periods of when the good results aren't flowing in [laughs] and you have to deal with all the negative results that you can get when you're doing research. Because you don't know the answer. If we knew the answer, then it's not research'.