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Ru Chen

College: City College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013

Looking for a Cancer Cure

Long before Ru Chen was born in a rural Fujian province in China, her grandfather was the area’s only physician, although ignorance and tradition often led his patients to distrust his medical advice.

Every night before bed, “grandfather would always light a candle, put on his glasses and read me one page of his herbal handbook” with its beautiful illustrations of plants, Chen wrote in her application for a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Scholarship.

At age 4, Chen learned the word for cancer when she saw a crying woman holding her son in her grandfather’s clinic. Ultimately, cancer claimed her grandfather, as well.

“It was heartbreaking watching my greatest mentor pass away,” she recalls. “Inspired by grandfather’s passion in cancer research and his dedication to medical service, I am driven to pursue my graduate school studies in cancer drug development.”

This fall Chen (City College, B.E. in chemical engineering, 2013) heads for the University of Delaware to pursue a doctorate with the help of a 2013 NSF grant, the most prestigious award for graduate students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. It provides $126,000 over three years to support graduate-level research.

This is a remarkable achievement for someone who had spent a year in a Chinese law school and barely spoke English when she immigrated four years ago.

“I’d read the newspaper every day for two or three years, morning and night to improve my oral English” Chen says. “The one thing I feel lucky for is that math is universal. But for other classes, vocabulary was very difficult for me. I’d spend five or six hours to preview and review course materials before every class. I feel lucky to be at CCNY, because all the professors and students are all very friendly and helpful.”

She praises the professors who have encouraged her to become a researcher. With Raymond Tu, she investigated how temperature at the air-water interface affects kinetic differences in the self-assembly of the Beta 9H peptide; self-assembly holds promise for future biomaterials.

With Teresa Bandosz, she explored the synthesis of copper-based metallic organic framework composites, which could improve environmental sustainability.

During a summer internship at Merck & Co., she designed and conducted distillation experiments that were related to vaccine research. And, she says, just about every professor and advisor helped along her NSF application.

On campus, Chen was workshop and tutoring coordinator for the Chemistry Department’s Peer-Led Team Learning Workshop. As president of The City College chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, she helped introduce minority middle-school students to the potential opportunities in science and engineering.

Chen’s NSF proposal for doctoral research is to explore the possibility of detecting cancer by looking for abnormal variations of glycoproteins, which are proteins attached by carbohydrates through a process called glycosylation. Many mammalian diseases involve glycosylation, but its role is not clear.

“There are a lot of changelings in this field waited to be explored,” she says.