Why I Do Science

Danica Chen

Photo: Courtesy of Danica Chen.

Growing up in China after the Cultural Revolution, we were encouraged to excel in science and technology. When I was applying for college, my father recommended that I pursue international accounting at Xiamen University, but the only slot available in that major for my whole province had already been filled. My brother happened to hear that they still had an opening in cell biology. When I was just 19, he set me on my path as a biologist.

After receiving my PhD in HIV transcription, I decided to change my research focus to aging. How we lose the ability to maintain homeostasis and become susceptible to diseases as we age remains an outstanding question in biology. The idea that we might be able to control the aging process was very exciting to me, and this became one cornerstone of my lab.

A related foundational concept is health span: the number of years one can live a healthy life. As aging is arguably the single biggest risk factor for numerous diseases, understanding the cellular pathways that control aging holds the promise of identifying therapeutic targets for not just one ailment but many simultaneously. My research aims to understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying aging-associated conditions and to identify which aspects of these conditions are reversible.

In biology, there are more female than male students from the undergraduate to the postdoc level, but that doesn’t seem to be translating into a better gender balance among tenured professors. I’d like to find ways to help women aim high and to create safe and inclusive work environments. Berkeley should aim to be a leader in providing an environment that fosters these values.

Danica Chen is an associate professor of metabolic biology in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology, as well as a member of the Berkeley Stem Cell Center and the QB3 Consortium in Lifespan Extension.