Alice A. Chen wasn’t always interested in engineering and never dreamed she would be an inventor. As a child, the self-described “no Thomas Edison” had a love of art, music and aspirations of becoming an artistic performer. But after helping to build an art exhibit entirely out of used computer parts, Chen developed a deep appreciation for tools and how they could be used to build new and improved creations. This combined passion for technology and creative design led Chen to the field of biomedical engineering.
Now a graduate student at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, Chen has applied micro- and nano-technology tools to create an assortment of innovations that have implications for drug development and disease modeling. For her creativity in solving biomedical problems, the 29-year-old has been awarded the prestigious 2011 $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.
One of Chen’s groundbreaking inventions, a humanized mouse with a tissue-engineered human liver, is a new tool for studying how the human liver metabolizes drugs and responds to infectious disease. Chen also pioneered additional scientific advances, including, with colleague Gregory Underhill, a platform to rapidly analyze engineered tissues under development for therapeutics and discovery; and with Austin Derfus, a method to increase the predictability and accuracy of siRNA as a research tool.
Chen’s innovative spirit empowered her to collaborate with fellow MIT graduate Todd Harris to co-found Sienna Labs, a biotechnology company that has developed a breakthrough class of new medical pigments to enhance the safety and efficacy of microsurgeries for skin disease treatments.
Chen is a co-applicant of five patents and co-author of 14 technical publications or book chapters. Her achievements include the National Collegiate Inventors Competition Graduate First Prize Award, the Biomedical Engineering Society Graduate Research Award, the MIT Graduate Woman of Excellence Award, the National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Research Fellowship and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Chen earned a BS from the University of California, Berkeley in Bioengineering, where she was selected as the Engineering Commencement Student Speaker, and an SM in Engineering Sciences from Harvard University. She will receive her PhD from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and Harvard School of Engineering in March 2011.
Chen credits her accomplishments to great collaborators and experiences that have taught her the skills to be a broad and integrative thinker. Growing up under the wing of a single, working mother, Chen learned the value of hard work and strived to apply herself at every opportunity. In graduate school, Chen’s research advisor, Sangeeta Bhatia, MD, PhD, encouraged her to explore diverse interests and challenged her to integrate and redistribute ideas in new ways.
Chen hopes to pay forward inspiration from her role models to the next generation of innovators. She has closely mentored undergraduates in research, professional and personal development at MIT and Harvard and actively shares her love of technology with today’s youth to connect them to their inner inventors.