Lab Talk

Anna Chen on Choosing Science, Pursuing a PhD, and Eyeing Industry

Anna Chen, PhD candidate in biomedical imaging, talks about what led her to research, why she’s working with MR spectroscopy, and how she’s learning about business.

Anna Chen, MPhil, is a doctoral candidate in the Biomedical Imaging and Technology PhD Training Program at NYU Grossman School of Medicine’s Vilcek Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. Her research focuses on the application of magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) imaging techniques to the search for biomarkers of neurological conditions. She is a junior scholar in the Research Education Component (REC) Scholar Program at NYU Langone’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC). Her ADRC REC advisor is Henry Rusinek, PhD. Her PhD advisor is Ivan Kirov, PhD. Our conversation was edited for clarity and concision.

How would you describe your background? 

I grew up in San Francisco. I am the eldest of two, and my parents are immigrants from China. My dad’s an electrician and my mom is an accountant. Neither of them went to graduate school. 

I grew up actually not wanting to be in STEM. I did art—oil painting, sketching—and played the violin since I was 9 years old. I auditioned for the San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA) and got in. Around the same time, I also tested for another high school called Lowell, which is very STEM-heavy. And because I got into that school, too, my parents were like, you have to go Lowell; you cannot go to SOTA.

Sounds like studying at Lowell wasn’t something you had planned to do. Is that what put you on the STEM track? 

The exam for Lowell was part of my middle school curriculum—it was just the exam for the day. Getting into SOTA was something I had been actively working towards. The audition took a whole day. I was very disappointed that I couldn’t attend.

At Lowell, I took STEM advanced placement courses—AP bio, AP psychology, and I really liked those but still yearned for some sort of liberal arts education. Later, I applied to private liberal arts colleges and also got into University of California San Diego (UCSD), which is a public school. In that case, it was a matter of finances, and my parents pushed for UCSD.

My form of rebellion was to choose a more holistic STEM major—cognitive science—with which I knew I could take philosophy, linguistics, and electives beyond bio and advanced math. I’m very happy with that choice. 

How did you get interested in research? 

In college, in addition to cognitive science, I started fulfilling premed prerequisites. But in my freshman year I also asked my psychology professor whether I could volunteer with her lab, which studied memory in rodents. I did it for the year and even applied for a little subsidy to do a summer research project. That kind of made me reassess whether I wanted to be premed.

I had had an experience in high school volunteering at a radiology clinic run by University of California San Francisco. That was very interesting and challenging. Radiology had caught my eye because it’s very visual, and I discovered that I enjoyed patient-oriented work. So, I wanted something similar out of research, and it took a few more steps to get there.

As a sophomore, I joined a cognitive science and linguistics lab studying eye movement in reading. That was fun but I felt like I wasn’t really solving anything, so in my junior year I found an opportunity at a functional MRI lab that studied anxiety, depression, and addiction. That’s when I came full circle to that experience interning in radiology—I got to see brains, learn about functional imaging, and work with patients.

So, as a college student you proactively sought out opportunities to go beyond coursework and do research.

Yes, but I also don’t consider myself a very studious person. I enjoyed research a lot more than coursework. Over time, I realized that one supplements the other, but I learned more from managing projects than from courses.

How do you think that relates to your earlier interests in the arts? 

I just enjoy doing things with my hands. I’m not great at sitting still and listening. I got lucky that my supervisors and mentors were great people, and those connections were very valuable.

Earlier in your life, your parents directed you toward STEM. Later, in college, you were beginning to realize that you’re interested in a scientific path rather than a medical one. Did your parents have strong opinions about this emerging interest that you had to navigate? Or were they content with your direction because it fell within the STEM realm? 

I actually didn’t tell them about all my research. I was trying to figure out what I wanted, and they just had this idea that I had a lot of extracurriculars for my premed.

When I decided to switch to science, for a time I felt disappointed in myself for not being able to push through with premed. I felt like I was giving up on something I would be able to do if I worked hard enough, but doing so would have made me unhappy. I liked the flexibility that a PhD offers, as opposed to the medical track, which is much more set. Even now, I’m still figuring out what I really want to do. 

You had conflicting feelings about choosing science at the time. How do you feel about that choice now?

I’m very happy. 

I took three gap years working as a research associate in a lab at UCSD. I knew I loved research but didn’t really know what to do with that. Eventually my P.I. there pushed me to apply to graduate school—just to see if I’d get in, to take the fear of failure out of it.

Now you’re on a path toward a doctorate, where expectations of your work are different than, say, expectations of the work of an undergraduate volunteer or even a research associate. What is that like?

It’s been hard. 

I did have friends who were graduate students at UCSD who warned me that grad school is tough, and I’ve seen PhD students who take 10 years to graduate and heard some toxic stories. Those friends emphasized the importance of choosing a good mentor, and I took that to heart. I’ve only had good experiences at NYU.

At the Vilcek Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, first-year students rotate through three labs before settling on an area of specialization. What were your rotations?

I rotated with Kevin Chan in an ophthalmology lab, with Ivan Kirov in a spectroscopy lab, and with Ryan Brown in the RF hardware lab. 

It was hard to choose. Hardware was really fun, but it would be a field where I’d have to relearn everything because I don’t have an engineering background. Although I found the work interesting, I had to consider whether I’d still feel that way when the going gets tough.

Spectroscopy, the specialization you’ve chosen, is perhaps less visual than some of the other imaging techniques. What has attracted you to this particular area?

When I was research staff, I had done functional MRI, arterial spin labeling, and also diffusion imaging, and I did have a little bit of experience with spectroscopy. I really like it because it’s sheds light on the mechanisms of the brain.

Ivan Kirov’s lab is centered around a theme of finding biomarkers of neurodegeneration. And the thing is, a lot of neurodegenerative diseases are normal-appearing until it’s too late, which is when you find overt deficits. Because spectroscopy can interrogate the chemistry of the brain, it has unique potential for early diagnosis. That’s the ultimate draw for me. 

What research are you doing now as part of your PhD?

I’m working on two projects. In one, I’m investigating whether metrics obtained with MR fingerprinting, such as T1 and T2 relaxation, can be used to make MR spectroscopy more precise in the study of mild traumatic brain injury. In the other project, I’m researching whether MR spectroscopy can help further define the risk for Alzheimer’s disease in cognitively unimpaired people at various risk levels based on known markers like tau proteins and genetics. In both projects, I’m looking for MRS biomarkers of neurodegenerative conditions.

You have a first-author manuscript currently under peer review, a few co-authored publications, and you’ve given several oral presentations at international scientific meetings. What are you learning about collaboration?

Collaboration is very valuable—that’s also what I looked for when I was rotating: how much do people collaborate? When I was research staff at UCSD, our lab participated in a multi-site study requiring a lot of communication between UCSD, USC, and UCLA, and I valued that because I could get a lot of different perspectives on the science. That has helped me learn and navigate the field.

Here, collaboration is valuable to me for the same reasons. For example, I was invited to do a talk at a joint NYU Langone and Massachusetts General Hospital ADRC event, and I was assigned a mentor from MGH, who is not in spectroscopy, so we come from different perspectives, and I’ve learned so much. I also like knowing that I’m building a network—collaborations make that much easier.

Do you have a vision or a hope at this point in your academic career of where you’re going or what kinds of areas or problems you’d like to delve into after your doctorate?

I get that a lot as a fourth-year now. Everyone’s always like, ‘so what do you want to do with your PhD?’ I want to leave academia and go into industry, but I don’t know what that looks like yet. 

Recently I joined an “activator” called Nucleate, which connects PhD students who may like to start their own companies with mentors. You get to connect with experts like lawyers and CEOs who launched their own startups. 

What is your role there?

I help with the infrastructure. Some of the startup ideas are about clinical applications. It can be, for example, AI for diagnosis, and for that idea the future founder may want to connect to a clinical advisor. I am part of the team that reaches out to clinicians and asks them whether they want to advise.

I’m doing this because I wanted to know more about business and what ideas people are coming up with. 

You’re following an instinct that has worked well for you before—getting into an environment where people do the very thing you’d like to know more about. At Nucleate, do you feel that you’re in the right space to learn what you want to be learning?

Yes, just being there allows me to figure some things out. Even if I decide that it’s not for me, it won’t be a waste because I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I’m creating connections with students who really want to be in the biotech startup space, so these will be valuable if I ever decide to pivot back. 

You’re also active with Clear Direction Mentoring, an organization that pairs graduate, postdoctoral, and early-career researchers with high-school and college students from marginalized backgrounds. What is it like to mentor folks who may be going through dilemmas similar to ones you yourself faced in high school?

I’ve been mentoring since first year of graduate school. I have one mentee who is now a high-school senior. She’s very different from what I was like at her age. She really knows what she wants—to become a cardiologist—and I’m just cheering her on.

What would you say to someone who is maybe more like you, who is in high school and trying to decide what they want to pursue in college, or maybe is in college but without a clear idea where they’re headed next?

Chasing your interests would be my biggest advice. 

I know that’s easier said than done. When I was younger, I was like, I’m only interested in art. Only in hindsight did I realize how an interest in art transferred over to an interest in the area of radiology and imaging. Maybe list out your primary interests and see what other fields may be relevant, crosscutting, or adjacent to them.

You moved across the country for graduate school, and during your PhD we’ve had a once-in-a-century pandemic. Already before 2020 there had been a growing conversation about how stressful and isolating the pursuit of a PhD can be for some students. How do you make the process work for you at school and in your life in general?

My lab has been very good to me, and because I have the support in that realm, that realm is taken care of. 

In terms of moving across the country to a new city, it hasn’t been that hard to adjust. Some people in San Diego warned me that New Yorkers are mean and other stereotypes—but I haven’t felt that way. People here are very straightforward and don’t want to waste time, and that’s very reasonable. I also love New York. I love the diversity, the accessibility. The one thing I miss is driving. And my biggest adjustment has been seasonal affective disorder—I feel it every winter.

Is there anything that you do outside of research that helps fill out a part of your life that’s not directly nourished by your doctoral pursuits?

There is something that I miss: in San Diego I used to do CrossFit. There’s a lot of space there, so there are many competitions, and I had a community that I loved. CrossFit here is very expensive. To fill that void, I go to the gym. That also helps with my mental health. In general, I’m just a very active person. I’ve taken advantage of a lot of what the city has to offer. New York has a very big billiards culture and I’ve been taking it up—it requires a lot of geometry, which I realize I’m not very good at. New York also has ping-pong pods and mini golf. I found a group to play tennis with, and a group to play volleyball with. When I came here and it was still open in the Bowery area, I’d go to figure drawing and sketch every week. There’s no longer that, but I have a setup at home.

It sounds like all of your interests are still very much with you. 

I try to tap into as many as I can.