News / 5 December 2022

Share something about yourself most people don’t know.
I was born in a small rural commune and raised – from the time I was a baby – in a communal children’s house, separate from my parents. From the age of 13, I worked shifts as a mechanic’s assistant in a factory and converted to agricultural work at the age of 16, when I was allowed to drive a tractor legally. I hardly knew anyone with a university degree, and certainly not scientists.

Why did you become a scientist?
During my undergraduate studies for an engineering degree, I took an internship in a university research lab out of curiosity, to see what scientists actually do. There, I was amazed by the enormous freedom to ask questions and then design experiments in order to answer them. It seemed like the dream job to me.

How would you explain your work at a dinner party?
All the cells in our body contain the same genes, but different cells turn on different genes and keep the rest off. I study how genes are turned off. Understanding how genes are turned off is key to the development of everything – from anticancer therapeutics and early diagnosis of congenital disorders, to future food technology & sustainable agriculture.

Which unresolved question would you most like to answer?
How do our cells manage to “pack” genes in an inactive state for decades, yet almost instantly turn them on when needed?

What has been a highlight of your research career to date?
As a graduate student, I solved my first high-resolution crystal structure that revealed how a new drug binds to its target. I remember looking at the electron density that represented the drug, knowing that patients in hospitals were taking it, doctors prescribing it, and scientists already trying to develop a better one; but at that moment, I was the only person on earth who actually saw it!

I made larger discoveries later, but that moment taught me the excitement of a breakthrough at the forefront of science.

Name one tool you can’t do without. 
Whiteboard. It was the first thing I bought when I opened my lab and I’d put them everywhere if I could.

What advice would you give early-career researchers in the current climate?
Spend some time doing research in another country.

More about Chen’s research

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