Daniel Chen is only 19, but he’s already a freshly minted University of Washington graduate and a recipient of a prestigious Marshall Scholarship, announced Monday.
The scholarship supports graduate education in the United Kingdom for U.S. students.
Chen started at the UW at age 14 through its Robinson Center for Young Scholars program and earned degrees in informatics and microbiology this spring, taking home an award for the best undergrad microbiology research project. He also speaks Chinese and is a decorated pianist.
The Sammamish, Wash., native is now a lab assistant at the Institute for Systems Biology and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where he continues his studies on immunology and long COVID.
The scholarship program is funded mainly by the U.K. government and launched in 1953 as a thank you for the Marshall Plan, the U.S. effort to fund the recovery of Europe after World War II. Chen will perform bioinformatics research in a lab at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Ultimately, his aim is to become a physician-scientist.
GeekWire talked with Chen about his plans, his experience at the UW, and his advice for other young people. The interview below is edited for clarity and brevity.
GeekWire: Why pursue a double major at the UW?
Chen: The UW doesn’t have a formal computational biology program, and that was really what I was interested in. So I got the biology background from the microbiology degree, and for the computational side I got the informatics degree to learn how to take information, process it and also make it accessible for people.
How did you juggle it all?
There was a lot of skill transfer, for instance some research projects were applicable to my coursework. I also filled some course requirements through experiential learning in the lab.
What was the most interesting thing you helped discover about long COVID?
There is this common signature in affected people of depressed cortisol, which is a stress hormone. When you have lower levels of this hormone then your immune system isn’t as kept in check. A lot of these symptoms in long COVID we suspect may be because people have depressed cortisol, and their immune system is over-activated in a sense.
What is your favorite microbe?
Deinococcus radiodurans. It can survive radiation.
What will you study at the Sanger Institute?
There is a lot of signaling in the human body. And people have mainly analyzed the signaling of the liver or the brain, but they haven’t really connected them together. I will take an informatics approach to look across different people and ask, “How does the signaling in the brain communicate with signals in the liver or the lung or the heart?”
How does that fit with the aim of the scholarship program?
The program creates an opportunity to serve as an ambassador between the U.K. and the U.S. A lot of my work has relied on these huge collaborations across the U.S., and I even had one collaboration in Germany. Later in my career I would maybe be able to say, “Oh, there’s phenomenon I see in the U.S. How do we see it in the U.K.? What different resources do we see?”
What is your current favorite piece of music to play?
There’s this Nocturne that I’m playing right now by Chopin, Opus 9 No. 2. It’s very nice to kind of relax. There’s the hustle and bustle of a lot of lab work, and his music tends to be a lot more, not necessarily milder, but more slowed down.
Favorite composer and favorite musician?
My favorite composer would probably be Joe Hisaishi, who composes a lot of music for movies as well. My favorite musician? There’s this new artist, her name is Faouzia.
You were pretty young when you left home to live near the UW campus in your second year. Do you feel you had a lot of parental support?
They always were very supportive. The main thing they pushed was to be really independent. They taught me a lot of things like how to cook at a young age. I would help with dinner starting at age eight. They had this little step stool that they would give me to reach the stove.
What advice would you give to other teenagers about early entrance to college? Would you recommend it?
What I did is just one pathway. I’ve had the opportunity to be friends with a lot of people who did Running Start (Washington state’s program that allows 11th and 12th graders to take classes at community and technical colleges). And I think that’s honestly a very good opportunity as well. Just search for where you are able to do more experiential learning, like projects with certain companies, or institutions or groups where you can actually see the impact and can say, “The work I’m doing is not just limited to this classroom environment, but it reaches and touches other people’s lives.” I think that’s important.