Keting Chen shares stories, lessons from her time at Iowa State

August 01, 2019 - by Sarah Igram

“As a child, I loved stories,” said Keting Chen, a Ph.D. candidate in Iowa State University’s Department of Genetics, Development, and Cell Biology. “I loved reading stories, I loved listening to stories, stories make me excited, and they are an important part of my life.”

She especially remembers reading stories about important biological discoveries, like the discovery of the structure of double-stranded DNA, or the discovery of genetic transposition on maize by Barbara McClintock. It was her love for those stories that drove her to study biology, and to eventually come to Iowa State for graduate school. Now a year from earning her doctorate in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, Chen studies strategies to protect crops, particularly maize, from climate change.

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Although humans may be able to adapt to climate change, Chen explains, crops are less flexible. And because maize is a source of food for humans and livestock, as well as a source of ethanol fuel, it’s important to improve its sustainability.

Keting Chen

Keting Chen

“We collect their metabolic data, and then their genetic information,” Chen said. “We match the two, and we compare them to unravel the story behind them. What makes a plant more or less resistant against irregular weather than the others?”

Due to the size and collaborative nature of Iowa State, Chen has been able to work with people in many different departments to conduct this research. It’s one of the things she has appreciated most about Iowa State throughout a decade on campus.

Chen first came to Iowa State to study horticulture, and she earned her first doctorate in 2012. After graduation, the furthest thing from her mind was the possibility of pursuing another degree. But she soon found herself talking to a friend, who had begun her academic career studying biology before shifting focus to bioinformatics.

“[My friend] told me, ‘How about doing what I’ve been doing and coming to my major?’” Chen said. “Then I talked to a few friends who had the same experience, coming from a biology background and making a transition within the field.”

After giving it additional thought, Chen decided to return to Iowa State. A year and a half after completing her first doctorate, she began working on her second.

Studying bioinformatics has allowed her to conduct research related to her original work, but in a brand-new direction. The transition from one doctorate to another was not always easy, however, as there were some areas in which Chen needed to become more skilled.

“[In Bioinformatics and Computational Biology], it’s common that you come with pure biology background or pure computational background, and you know nothing about the other side. And [the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology] interdepartmental graduate program includes faculty from biological and computational sciences,” she said.

Chen met with the faculty members who have a computational background, and they helped her plan how to become stronger in areas like statistics and computer programming. She also sought assistance from other campus resources, including the Center for Communication Excellence and the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, to better prepare for success in her program and for future career development.

“I feel like [graduate students] have to really acknowledge our weaknesses, and then face it and seek help,” Chen said. “And on this campus, you can get so much help.”

Although seeking assistance has not always come easy for Chen, she feels that prioritizing her health has helped her learn to do so. Every morning before going to her office, she spends 10 to 15 minutes meditating.

“When you’re [meditating], you are having a conversation with yourself,” she said. “Often, I ask, what am I afraid of? Do I think I cannot get help, or not want to admit that I have limitations? It’s a good way for self-reflection.”

Chen also finds time in her schedule for exercise, reasoning that spending half an hour jogging or doing yoga will ultimately help her work more productively. And she has learned that her most productive hours are in the morning, so she reserves that time for high-priority tasks.

“Everyone has different habits, and you have to know yourself and what is the most efficient way for you to work,” she said.

As Chen’s time as a Ph.D. student draws to a close, she is proud of all the ways she’s grown. Her skills as a researcher, teacher, and public speaker have all evolved throughout her time in the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology program.

She plans to stay at Iowa State as a postdoctoral scholar for a few years before applying for faculty positions, which she feels will help her grow even more as a scholar.

“A student doesn’t have as much independence as a postdoc,” she said. “And as a postdoc, you really start to develop your own career, looking for long-term projects you want to work on for years. So that’s the time to really develop a very specific career plan.”

Tags: interdepartmental program, bioinformatics and computational biology