Undergraduate Academic Affairs

December 12, 2022

UW grad Daniel Chen named prestigious Marshall Scholar

Danielle Marie Holland

Daniel Chen ’22, has been named a Marshall Scholarship recipient. Chen graduated last spring with majors in microbiology and informatics, and will be pursuing a master’s degree in biological sciences and genomic medicine and conducting genomic medicine research at the Sanger Institute at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Originally established in 1953, the Marshall Scholarships finance distinguished young Americans for study in the U.K. This year 40 recipients from across the U.S., out of 951 applicants, were awarded scholarships for 2023.

“I was so surprised when I learned I was awarded,” shared Chen. “This is such an honor. It represents an opportunity to learn and gain a unique perspective in science.” The Marshall Scholarship covers university fees, living expenses, annual book and thesis grants, research and daily travel grants along with fares to and from the United States.

Reflecting on the award, Chen said, “I think the Marshall Scholarship is a great example of taking U.S. and U.K. perspectives, and putting them together to work and discover and push for better health, not just for these two countries, but for the world at large. “

The Marshall Scholarship was designed to support future leaders while helping scholars gain an understanding of contemporary Britain. As a dedicated researcher and scholar, Chen intends to work with Dr. Sarah Teichmann at the Sanger Institute and learn from her library of experience to apply new skills into his research of autoimmune and autoinflammatory diseases.

“All of us at the UW are so proud of and happy for Daniel being selected as a Marshall Scholar,” says Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs. “Daniel’s rigorous undergraduate scholarship on topical and complex medical issues is exemplary and highlights how UW undergraduates deepen and connect their academic interests to research for the public good. This recognition will provide a wonderful opportunity for Daniel, who is already dedicated to the medical sciences, to extend his scholarship.”

Driven by possibility and discovery

Photo of Daniel Chen in a lab.

Daniel Chen, ’22, is one of 40 students from across the US recently selected for the prestigious Marshall Scholarship. Photo by Ian Teodoro.

Chen is no stranger to prestigious awards. As an undergraduate at the UW, he has received the Goldwater Scholarship, Mary Gates Research Scholarship, Microbiology Undergraduate Research Award and Levinson Emerging Scholar Award. In 2022, Chen was named to the Husky 100, an annual program recognizing only 100 UW undergraduate and graduate students who are “making the most of their time at the UW.”

Originally from Sammamish, Wash., Chen arrived at the UW at age 14, through the Robinson Center for Young Scholars Early Entrance Program. Majoring in microbiology and informatics (data science), Chen spent his senior year conducting single-cell research on pancreatic cancer and COVID-19 patients. Chen worked with mentor Jim Heath, professor and president of the Institute for Systems Biology, on a large COVID paper identifying factors to measure when and before a patient is diagnosed with long COVID.

“Daniel is an amazing young scientist,” said Dr. Heath, speaking to Chen being both the second-author for the December 2020 acute COVID study and co-first-author for the March 2022 long COVID study. “On top of that, he is also a concert-level pianist,” shared Dr. Heath.

Chen looks at his research as being led by questions, asking,  “Why do people get severe COVID? How do we have protective immunity? What did those cells look like?” He identifies the second part of his current work as diving further into those questions, seeing what is special about cells and phenotypes, and looking at  “what leads them to be created or contracted or to later go away.”

“Daniel is one of my most striking students ever,” shared Greg Hay, assistant teaching professor for the UW Information School. “He has a superpower processor; his mind is always active, engaged and blasting forward at double-speed,” he said on Chen’s participation at age 17 in a Microsoft project as a team lead managing both undergraduate and graduate students. “He is fearless, focused and curious.”

Chen has worked in a BSL-2 medical microbiology lab, assisted in the Heath Lab (ISB) and Greenberg/Gottardo Labs at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, researched under Dr. Yapeng Su on melanoma patients and conducted research under Dr. Fosheng Hsu in the Mougous Lab at the UW while gaining experience in bacterial cloning and genetic engineering.

“I am really thankful for the people around me, both in the lab and my friends,” Chen said, “To be supported in both pursuing opportunities as they arise, and in knowing when to rest.” Chen aspires to be an academic-medicine professor working in classrooms, research labs and practicing in clinics. Chen, who identifies as LGBTQIA+, enjoys hiking in Washington’s nature preserves, crocheting amigurumi animals and playing the piano.

Chen looks forward to his upcoming U.K. adventure, stating, “I have always loved community and the diverse perspectives it can bring through connection. The Marshall Scholarship provides me the means to build connections with scientific communities in the UK, and I believe these will be key to long-term collaborations that push forward science and health for all.”

About the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards

The Marshall Scholarship process is supported by the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards (OMSFA), a UAA program. OMSFA works with faculty, staff and students to identify and support promising students in developing the skills and personal insights necessary to become strong candidates for this and other prestigious awards.


More about Daniel, a Q&A

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to come to the UW?

I came to the University of Washington at 14 through the Robinson Center for Young Scholars Early Entrance program, which was a nice opportunity to start research early. I always liked animals and biology. Dr. Emily Jacobs-Palmer was at the UW and she guided myself and two other peers on a project on finding nutria in Washington because they’re invasive. That was one of the things I really liked, and it brought me back to the UW.

Why did you decide to study informatics and microbiology?

I started in a microbiology lab trying to use a model of tuberculosis to figure out what’s going on there. ‘What are the toxins? Why is it hurting people for so long?’ One of the things that I really liked about the project was the computational side, trying to look at the gene and predict what its function is going to be. That led me more towards a computational biology track and thus I came to the Heath Lab where I’ve been doing research ever since, and also at Fred Hutch.

What were some of the things you remember experiencing coming into the Heath Lab?

I think it was a bit of a shock in a good way, being able to be open and having a space that fostered the ability to say your ideas, regardless of anyone agreeing or disagreeing. I think that was a really exciting part.

Why is this area of research important and something you wanted to study?

My research interests originally came from seeing the diversity of life and how things have evolved over time. I was in paleontology for a little bit until I moved over to looking at immune cells, which is what my current research is on. Immune cells are really diverse and they evolve over time, but rapidly. So I was asking, what does this evolution really look like? Why are these small minute changes resulting in huge physiological changes of patients?

One half of the research I currently do is looking at COVID patients to ask, why do people get severe COVID, how do we have protective immunity, and what do those cells look like? What are the tiny molecular changes inside and outside of their cells, and how do they kind of talk with each other? My current project is looking at these cells that can recognize many of the proteins on SARS-CoV-2, and, asking for these cells, “What is special about their phenotype, what leads them to be created, and what leads them to be contracted or going away later on?”

I’m really excited to look at them across time and see how these are evolving. I also do some cancer immunotherapy work over at Fred Hutch, which is very similar in looking at how these immune cells change over time, but for cancer instead of COVID.

How is this work applied outside of the lab?

The goal for all of this is trying to understand things from the basic biology side, and then apply it to patients and create new therapeutics or some type of insight or advice. With that, there is this long COVID problem – asking if you have long covid, there are such diverse symptoms and many people don’t even know what long COVID is. So we are trying to come up with a definition, a classification of different symptom groups for people with long COVID. In looking at these differences in groups, we ask what is the kind of immunological underpinning that’s inside someone’s blood that is leading to these different conditions?

We kind of took two branches and the first one was saying, Well, what leads to this, what is associated with the start? I was looking at patients when they first got COVID, looking to see if they have antibodies attacking themselves, a predisposition to symptoms later on, or something that might be useful as well. If I already have symptoms, I have long COVID, what am I going to do about it? One of the things we discovered is this depression of cortisol, which is the stress hormone. Cortisol is also an immunosuppressant. So having lower amounts of it might correlate with your immune system causing some damage. That’s one of the therapeutic insights we got from it.

How have you seen this research used so far?

It’s new and because it’s new, we also want to make sure it’s safe and it’s found in other places. So we talked with Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, over at Yale, and she independently found this in her own cohort a year after symptoms. We were working two to three months, and she was working a year, and that was kind of the validation we really were hoping for. We’re seeing that this kind of cortisol phenomenon is likely something reproducible, across the country and even at a later time point. We have physicians and collaborators over here who use it and take it into account in their own therapy.

What keeps you coming back, continuing to choose research?

I first got involved in research at UW, formally, around August 2018. And then there’s the first nutria project before that and early 2018 to January 2019. That was the whole microbiology, wet lab, plate bacteria type of research. I started at Heath around May 2019, and at Fred Hutch from around June 2021.

I think what really keeps the motivation going is just the diversity of projects. There’s always something new to work on. There’s some other perspective to take. I think also — it’s just in science itself. There’s so many different collaborators and other people around. There’s always something, a new tool to apply, a new perspective or someone disagrees with the golden law of whatever field we’re in. That’s always really exciting to say, well, is it actually true, is it kind of breaking the law that we’re thinking about? Or is this law only applicable in certain cases and figuring out what those cases are? You kind of delve deeper into the tree of knowledge there. I think that’s really exciting.

What have you learned about yourself from doing all of these different research projects?

It’s very curiosity stimulating. It’s always exciting. I’ll start a project and think, okay, we just want to wrap this up, or the story is going to be ABC. And then there’s part D, and there’s part Z, and it just keeps going. It’s almost never the story you think it is, is something that I’ve learned as I go through this. I think there’s always another part that makes it really exciting because you’re trying to find the story. When you have this hypothesis in your mind, and the hypothesis is probably going to be very off base, but you kind of figure it out, stumbling down different paths. I think it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. That’s really cool.

I think it’s a learning process. I don’t know everything there is, I definitely don’t know that much. There’s so many different types of cells in the human body. I mainly look for the projects I’m on right now, for T cells, for example. And so when we go and look at another project, which is on B cells which produce the autoantibodies, I am just completely out of my knowledge base. So looking back on what I’ve learned in these past few months on that project, it’s kind of jaw dropping to look back and say “Oh, I now know X, Y and Z, and I definitely wouldn’t have thought of that hypothesis.” It’s really exciting to see how much you can learn in just a few months.

How does the informatics side of your two majors comes into play with biology?

I think the biology portion is just the foundation of the knowledge you need to have and the language you need to speak. The informatics part are the tools that we use to figure those out. So we have this biological question and biological knowledge, and I have to really ask it from an informatics perspective: What information do we have? What information do we need and how can we analyze information?

I think that’s where the informatics portion comes in, into analyzing the information and then presenting it. How do we take this kind of scientific bundle of words and present it to the public in an understandable way that’s actionable for them. Because if it’s just kind of this, oh, a new paper came out with x and y result, it doesn’t really matter to you, unless you can act upon it or you can think upon it or talk about it. That’s where informatics really comes into use, asking how we take information and make into actionable steps.

How did you see your work in the lab connect back to your classroom experiences? And vice versa?

There’s the more formal aspects of it, which is like, I’ll be in an informatics class, there’s a technique I saw in the research, and I’ll apply at a smaller scale in class. It works well or doesn’t work well, and I’ll take that and feed it back into my research — kind of a technical loop.

There’s also more of that kind of way of thinking. I think research really stimulates you to ask, “Why not? Why not do x, y and z? Or why was a, b and c nonexisting?” I think a nice example is, I took an anthro class back in spring 2020, and it was basically asking about where do we see certain concepts come up. So things like the American Medical Association, how was that brought about, what are the roots of it, how does that lead to potential detrimental impacts? Currently, I think, on the research side, asking, “Why not” really is something that was fostered here in the lab, and then bringing that back into the academic side.

What's the impact of your research for a broader public?

I think that there’s the actionable, cortisol portion of it. What are the potential therapies we could give to a patient, is cortisol replacement therapy something that we think is safe or efficacious that could be done?

I think also there are some just questions I think patients and people have in general. “If I have long COVID, how might I have gotten it?” Being able to understand that, and say these are some potential sources. You can maybe walk through the past of the patient, see if anything lines up. I think that’s also satisfying a nice part of the patient’s curiosity, that I think is important to talk about.

What was it about the Marshall scholarship that you were thinking would be a great step for your career and goals?

My motto is that diversity of thought is what drives knowledge forward. It’s really having these kinds of constructive arguments, where you come from different perspectives, you come from different backgrounds and you work together to chip away at the truth. You are going to have a lot of these disagreements sometimes, but I think it is having these really, really rich but different ways of thinking of the problem that lead you to finally figuring out the solution. I think the Marshall Scholarship is a good example of taking US and UK perspectives and putting them together to try to work, find out and push better health. Not just for these two countries, but for the world at large.

After the Marshall Scholarship, what do you imagine yourself to be doing? What are your long term goals and what do you hope your lasting impact will be?

I think it will serve as this great toolbox and foundation for coming back to the US, applying and hopefully getting into MD/PhD programs, and taking my skill set there and hitting the ground running. To be able to take my doctoral work and look specifically with a rheumatology or oncology focus. Looking at autoimmune diseases, my family has some kind of condition of autoimmunity, myself and some friends as well. Being able to actually take action in these spaces and take the tools I’ve learned at the Heath lab, Fred Hutch, the UK and really applying it to dive deep to say, what is this specific mechanism that actually is going on here? Because we really don’t know that at the moment. So finding out the specific mechanisms, finding out a specific solution for it and then being able to bring that to the public. I think that will be really, really exciting and is my long term goal.