Meeting Joy Chen for the first time, her friendliness, talkativeness, and intelligence are immediately apparent, as is her passion for science and bioengineering. Joy, Uni Class of 2017, was recently awarded the Kristine Neuhoff Twyman Breast Cancer Scholarship. According to the Cancer Center at Illinois, the scholarship recognizes “students conducting research that will impact the lives of other individuals diagnosed with breast cancer.”
Joy’s interest in bioengineering began at Uni. She always enjoyed biology, and participating in ExploraVision showed her the excitement of engineering – dreaming up an idea, learning about others doing the same work, and sharing projects with new people. Joining researcHStart, an eight-week program that exposes high schoolers to cancer research, gave Joy her path of study, as well as her future PI (principle investigator, the lead researcher of a project). Now, she works under Dr. Erik Nelson at UIUC, researching “the role of cholesterol in breast cancer metastasis” and recurrence from dormancy. Breast cancer is a broad field in which Joy became more and more interested as she learned about it. Besides enjoying the technical aspects of the work, as the second leading cause of cancer death in women, the wide impact of breast cancer research was also important to her.
Outside of school, Joy says, “something that I really love doing is connecting with students within the community and within just our department.” She is involved in numerous organizations focusing on STEM outreach. She has been part of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) since she was a freshman, visiting middle and high schools, teaching kids about science, and running community service events. Now, as Vice President, she hosts post-graduation info sessions for current students, and teaches orientation for new students as an Engineering Learning Assistant (ELA). She is also a part of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and Engineering Ambassadors, which work to bring STEM to young girls and underrepresented populations.
While in quarantine, Joy has appreciated that there is less time wasted rushing between meetings and classes, though it also means less opportunity for moving around and impromptu socializing. In her free time, she has tried to read more for fun, as well as play tennis and spend time in nature (plus, of course, a healthy amount of YouTube and TikTok). She is also having fun continuing to do extracurricular projects. Currently, her Engineering Open House (EOH) team is working on building a model DNA circuit to teach students about CRISPR technology, as well as an app that allows users to travel into the DNA of a cell. She is also participating in the Health Maker Lab’s ExploraVision-esque Health Make-a-Thon, where teams come up with technologies that could benefit health or people in the healthcare field. She and her partner are developing an at-home blood-testing device that could quickly provide users with a metabolic panel. Along with nine other teams, they have been given $10,000 to try to make their idea a reality, for which they are also learning about business and entrepreneurship.
Working in research labs, doing outreach, and even having been a Writing Center tutor at Uni showed Joy how much she enjoys mentorship. She considers having a mentor very important and a benefit of going into academia. Although she is keeping her options open to join industry in the future, she is drawn to the mentorship opportunities and freedom to do the projects that interest her that being a researcher and professor provides.
Joy is currently in the process of (virtually) visiting grad schools. She advises Uni students going through the same process with college to talk to current undergrads and find the place that they like best, because there will be new people and opportunities everywhere — “wherever you end up, you will make the most out of [it].” She also says, “take advantage of the things that you’re interested in [and] cater your time to the things you’re interested in.” As she pursues her PhD, Joy says that outreach, and especially bringing science to communities with little-to-no STEM curriculum, will definitely be something she continues to do. And after only a brief conversation with her, I have to imagine that she will continue to participate and succeed in countless more endeavors.