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WeiTing Chen ’14 spends summer studying cells, with an eye toward curing diseases

WeiTing and her mentor Jason Tien

As the first Barnard student ever to be accepted to the highly prestigious Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) run by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, chemistry major WeiTing Chen ’14 spent her summer at the University of California, San Francisco, doing complex biochemistry research in a neuroscience lab. EXROP pairs students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the academic sciences with working scientists to do hands-on lab research, and provides them with stipends that allow the students to live in residence halls and focus on their work. Chen was nominated for the program by Prof. Paul Hertz, biology professor and founding director of Barnard’s HHMI-funded science pipeline program.

Chen calls her 10-week summer EXROP experience unparalleled. The program provided her with two mentors, a graduate student and a post-doc student, who let her pick a project on which to focus. Chen’s project of choice allowed her to study the calcium-activated chloride channels in cells. She worked on a team that is examining how a certain protein may make up these tiny tunnel-like cell components, and how an absence of the protein may play a role in such diseases as cystic fibrosis, asthma, and cancer. “Once we figure out how the channel looks, it will be easier to come up with drugs to target the channel,” explains Chen.

Once she settled on a project, she says her mentors “trained me for four or five weeks, and then I was able to go into a lab and work on my research, and if I had questions they were really able to help.” After working in Barnard’s smaller laboratories, it was interesting for her to work in a larger lab setting. Through EXROP, Chen also lived with other student scientists, went sightseeing in her free time, and attended regular talks by UCSF professors. “It was very fun, and living in San Francisco made it even more fun,” she says.

Born in China, Chen moved to the Whitestone neighborhood of Queens when she was 11. At Barnard, she is a member of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), and has advised high-school students through Barnard’s Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP). She also works in the lab of her chemistry professor and advisor, Prof. John Magyar. Their project involves studying hydrocarbonoclastic microorganisms, bacteria that naturally degrade oil and other hydrocarbons and could have applications to oil-spill cleanup and remediation. Her work has led to her being a co-author on a paper in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry and will likely lead to her co-authoring other papers.

Magyar offers Chen high praise. “WeiTing has made significant contributions to our research progress. She is enthusiastic, hardworking, and excellent in the laboratory,” he says. “She has become my group expert in circular dichroism spectroscopy, learning how to use a very user-unfriendly instrument and then training her fellow students to use it. All of these skills will be invaluable to her in graduate school.”

As a senior, Chen is currently applying to graduate school and says her experience working and studying in Barnard’s chemistry department has introduced her to a field she ultimately wants to pursue. “I really like the chemistry department here at Barnard. Not only do they give me a lot of support, but they are really good at presenting chemistry as an interesting field.”

Read more stories about student research opportunities at Barnard.