Student Spotlight: Chen Liang Sows Seeds of Change

Chen Liang (second from right) pictured at a celebration for SEED graduates. Photo provided by Chen Liang.
Chen Liang (second from right) pictured at a celebration for SEED graduates. Photo provided by Chen Liang.

If Chen Liang (Lynn Group) sees a problem in need of a solution, she’ll create one. In Fall 2012, not long after moving to Atlanta from China to start graduate school, Chen volunteered with refugee families in Clarkston, GA and was struck by the challenges that children and their families were facing. “I was shocked to see children a couple of miles from me are living without matching shoes and suffering from hunger.”

Chen knew what the solution needed to be—“The best way to change the life of an under-served child is through education,” she explains. That insight led Chen to enlist the support of Barbara Coble in Emory’s Center for Community Engagement and Leadership. Dr. Coble was already running a program—Graduation Generation—focused on outreach to under-served students in Atlanta public schools. Together, they created the Student Educational Experience Program (SEED), to provide those same students with greater access to science education, including tutoring, workshops, and information on science careers and higher education.

The partnership with Dr. Coble got Project SEED off the ground, but there were still plenty of logistics to be worked out. “I started cold-calling many presidents of other clubs to learn their funding process and how to write a charter. I also spread my idea around the chemistry department and my friends and successfully convinced some to join SEED.” The majority of SEED’s original members are from the Department of Chemistry, although the program now includes students and faculty from biology and physics, among others.

Barbara Coble praises Chen for her commitment and vision. “Chen is an outstanding community engagement practitioner with a uniquely humble, yet fiercely determined spirit. She works diligently to connect Emory students and university resources to these students.” Reflecting on her experiences working with Dr. Coble, Chen echoes that same praise. “When I had the idea of SEED, I brought it to her and she liked it and helped a lot during the founding process. Dr. Coble never gives up. Her persistency and upbeat spirit encourages me a lot when things get rough for SEED.”

Part of the brilliance of Project SEED’s design is that it draws on the impressive scientific resources Emory already has in place—particularly the expertise of its students. “We would all reach out to different clubs and professors, share SEED’s mission, and ask them to give students one hour sessions on various subjects,” explains Chen. Over time, SEED participants from Emory have built relationships with the students they serve, particularly students from Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School.

Deeabe* is one of those students. She recently joined SOAR, a branch of SEED led by undergraduate Lexy Dantzler that connects students with research experiences in Emory labs, and started working on research in the lab of Dr. Meleah Hickman in the Department of Biology. “Deeabe’s family is not wealthy and her mom had breast cancer a couple of years ago. Despite the family situation, she is driven and hardworking,” says Chen. “She has received a scholarship from Pearls of Purpose and will be attending Georgia State this fall. That’s what I want SEED to be—an extra hand to help these students achieve their dreams.”

Despite Project SEED’s remarkable scope, it is far from Chen’s only contribution during her time at Emory. She has also served as a Student Ambassador for the Laney Graduate School, working to connect Emory students with professional development resources.

“Chen organized a fantastic program with the co-founder and CEO of Oystir, Rudy Bellani, who presented via Skype to a large group of students about what employers are looking for from STEM PhDs. Chen has always been a reliable source of ideas and feedback for the LGS as she is committed to her own academic and professional success as well as the success of her colleagues and future LGS students,” says Sarah Peterson, Laney’s Assistant Program Director for LGS Career Resources.

Chen also led an initiative to better connect science PhDs with career opportunities in consulting. Once again, the project stemmed from her recognition of an unfulfilled need—she saw that consulting firms that recruited at Emory focused largely on the professional schools, such as Rollins or Goizueta, despite the availability of PhDs with broad training in science and health issues. Chen took on the presidency of Emory’s dormant Advanced Degree Consulting Club (ADCC), reviving and expanding the organization and reaching out to consulting firms.  Now, several of those firms regularly recruit from Emory’s talented pool of science PhDs and ADCC has rich resources to help PhDs pursue a career in consulting.

How does Chen balance these many outreach accomplishments with her research work? A lot of it comes down to time management. “I have learned to plan my day down to every hour,” says Chen. “Sometimes, I have to work twelve hours a day or work on weekends to fulfill requirements from both sides; but in general, my research and extracurricular work complement each other. The achievement from SEED energizes me and motivates me to excel in research; my TA and research experience, as well as my network in academia helps me improve SEED as a program.”

It also helps to have a supportive research advisor in Dr. David Lynn. “Chen is a remarkably passionate and caring individual, committed to making a difference with her research and through her ability to contribute to the education of others,” says Dr. Lynn. “Her community outreach to young Atlanta children through SEED is changing her colleagues and our faculty. One of my entire classes for Emory 1st year college students was built on the outreach infrastructure she helped develop. Chen has already created a powerful and lasting mark on her Atlanta community and has the potential to change our world at a time when her compassion for humanity is so much in need.”

Even in Chen’s research, her desire to explore what’s missing and maximize her understanding of what is possible is apparent. (Click here to read more about Chen’s research!) Her research seeks to contribute to the search for more effective therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease by exploring amyloid proteins, hypothesized to cause the progression of the disease. Her work on amyloids resulted in a first author paper in JACS in 2014. After she completes the PhD at Emory, Chen plans to draw on her training to contribute broadly to the field of life science and education. Project SEED, shored up by her hard work, will continue after Chen graduates. “One of the biggest challenges ahead for SEED will be to fill Chen’s shoes, as the President, when she graduates,” says Dr. Coble.

*The student’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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