Women in STEM interview: Christina Chang
In our Women in STEM interview series, we highlight inspirational and influential women and woman-identifying individuals in the fields of science and engineering to learn about their backgrounds, how they got to where they are, and what obstacles they have overcome to get there. Today, we are joined by Christina Chang, PhD, a staff scientist at Deepcell.
At Deepcell, Christina is developing a novel AI-powered cell analysis platform. Prior to her current position, she managed the technology and application development team for the BD Rhapsody—a single-cell, multiomics analysis platform. She received her PhD in Immunology from UC San Diego, where she studied the role of CD4+T cells in autoimmune diseases. Read on or listen to the interview to learn more about Dr. Chang.
Spencer: Hi, everyone. Welcome to our second episode of our women in STEM interview series, where we highlight women and women-identifying individuals with STEM backgrounds who currently work in a range of industries and roles. I'm Spencer Wong, and I'm a technical writer at Takara Bio. Today, we are so excited to have Dr. Christina Chang. Christina is a staff scientist at Deepcell, a biotech startup pioneering a novel AI-powered cell-analysis platform. Prior to Deepcell, she led technology and application development for the BD Rhapsody—a single-cell, multi-omics analysis platform. She received her PhD in Immunology from UCSD, where she studied the role of CD4+T cells in autoimmune diseases. Thank you so much for joining us, Christina!
Christina: You're welcome. Hi, Spencer.
Spencer: Really excited to hear more about your story. Let's jump right into the questions. What is your favorite part about your current role at Deepcell?
Christina: As you mentioned, at Deepcell, we're building a novel AI-powered platform that enables identification and enrichment of cells based on morphological features. It's pretty exciting because morphology is something that scientists have been using for a very long time. Until now, there hasn't been a high-throughput or scalable way to digitize information and map it to other omics like gene expression or a mutation profile.
My favorite part is the opportunity to work on a new technology that can bring new value to the field. Another thing is being able to work with really talented people, across many functions. We’re working on complex platforms, which incorporate biology, hardware engineering, software engineering, bioinformatics, and many different groups to pull it off. That's something that I really enjoy.
Spencer: Wow, it definitely sounds like there are a lot of different fields that play into these different projects. Would you say that your background fit well with it in terms of scientific and programming/engineering background?
Christina: I don't have much of a software or hardware engineering background. In my previous work, I did have experience working with different types of hardware and software engineers. I think the collaborative environment is helpful for getting everyone up to speed. For example, for some of our software engineers, this is the first time they're working on a life science project and there are a lot of learning opportunities for everybody. That’s what's so unique about this company and the type of product that we're working on.
Spencer: Yeah, definitely. Having a lot of collaboration is helpful when you're learning new kinds of topics.
What is one professional risk that you've taken that has paid off?
Christina: I would say it's not doing a postdoc. While I was in grad school, it was very common for people to do a postdoc by default for biology and the biological sciences. As I was wrapping up my PhD, I knew I wanted to go into industry, but I was torn about doing a postdoc first. A couple of people warned me that not doing one could limit my future opportunities. I ended up not doing one and instead, jumping right into a scientist position at a biotech company. For me, it really paid off. For others who are torn between academic research and industry (or even a different field), a postdoc might still be a really good option. Spending three years in my first scientist role was much better spent than doing an academic postdoc. I was able to learn a lot of skills that I wouldn't have been able to in academic settings. It made me a better, more well-rounded scientist at the end of the day.
Spencer: That's well said. A lot of people, especially when I was in grad school, were confused for their next steps.
One of our goals of this interview series is to shed light on the difficulties specifically faced by individuals who identify as women in STEM. Could you tell us about a difficult experience in STEM and how you successfully navigated it? Or how you wish you navigated it?
Christina: I was lucky throughout my graduate school experience to not have any negative experiences. Everybody I worked with was very respectful, and I had a positive experience overall.
There was a very distinct instance that I remember from when I first entered industry as a junior scientist. While reviewing R&D data generated for marketing purposes, a marketing colleague—who is much older than I—had a disagreement about whether to include one figure. I felt like he didn't appreciate the figure because he didn't understand it. Instead of providing me an opportunity to explain my rationale, he cut me off and made a snarky remark that there are resources to improve my presentation skills.
To this day, I can still distinctly remember the condescending tone that he used and how frustrating it was to feel like you're not being respected because of your gender, age, or ethnicity. Shortly after, I witnessed another disagreement between him and another white, older male colleague, which played out in a much more civilized, respectful way. That was very frustrating. At the time, I was a fresh grad, and it was my first job. I had never encountered anything like that; I took it silently. Luckily, since then, I haven't had to experience a lot of these types of encounters. Now that I'm older and hopefully slightly bolder, I hope I would be able to be more assertive when I have a valid point and maybe gently push back when I feel like it's appropriate.
Spencer: Thank you so much for sharing that story. I think that a lot of people listening to this can really resonate with a similar experience, and I think that you handled it well at the time. I think we need to break down the walls; these experiences should be more well known, so that there is infrastructure to deal with them.
Switching gears, what was your favorite course or subject in school or university?
Christina: In high school, my favorite subject was math. I liked the fact that, at least at the high school level, it was a subject that didn't require a lot of memorization. If you understood the concepts, you could use deduction to solve most of the problems. However, when I started college, I was really drawn to biology, especially the experimental side of it. I really liked the process of experimentation. Being able to come up with a hypothesis, test it in a tangible way, and get results in hours or days was really fascinating to me. I was particularly interested in molecular biology and the idea of such a complex system in a tiny cell. Moreover, how that cell arrived from nothing through evolution was pretty incredible to me.
Spencer: The origin of life is always an interesting topic. Stepping back a little bit, I'd love to hear what a highlight of your past year has been, either professionally or personally.
Christina: I'm sure this past year has been interesting for a lot of people due to the pandemic. Like a lot of companies, we moved to remote work, and it's been really interesting navigating work across teams. I learned a lot about how to work remotely, which is not something I've had to even think about in the past, but we've been able to onboard a ton of new people this past year, despite the pandemic. Learning how to communicate effectively has been really helpful. I think after the pandemic, that communication will be really useful for our team.
Personally, staying COVID-free is an accomplishment. Also, I have been having more time on my hands. I inventoried my entire pantry, fridge, and freezer in spreadsheet-style. I was able to go through it and prevent food waste moving forward. That was one of the many projects I took up during the pandemic.
Spencer: That’s incredible! I applaud you for doing all of that. How much time did that take for you to inventory all of that?
Christina: It took about two hours.
Spencer: That's much shorter than I thought. I would take on the order of days at least.
Christina: I guess I didn't have as much food stored as I thought.
Spencer: I think when the pandemic originally started, I hoarded a lot of dried and canned goods, so my closet is full of random things.
Christina: I still have some panic purchase of cans of beans that have stayed untouched.
Spencer: But at least they're inventoried now! Switching gears, what is a piece of advice that you completely ignored. Following up from that, did you regret ignoring it or did it pay off?
Christina: My dad was a software engineer. Early on in his career, he advised me to major in computer science. Of course, I ignored his advice and pursued something that, as we now know, turned out to be much less lucrative with the rise of tech companies in the past. I can't say I regret my decision because I do love what I do. However, I wish I had the foresight to develop more proficient coding and data science skills earlier on in my career, as these skills are now super useful in life sciences, as we move towards larger and more complex datasets.
Spencer: I also feel similarly that I wish I took more coding courses. Have you found that from your current work you're able to learn a lot of the coding or is it just not necessary?
Christina: I've been able to pick up some here and there on an as-needed basis. It's great that nowadays, there are a lot of resources on the internet, including online courses, that people can access if they are interested. But I think it's still more work than if I had a solid foundation to build upon.
Spencer: I agree. And YouTube is helpful for a lot of learning nowadays.
Christina: Yes, definitely.
Spencer: My last question for you: are there any women in STEM whom you'd like to see interviewed in this series?
Christina: No names specifically, but I would love to hear from women in more senior roles, such as executive roles in life science or tech companies. I would love to hear about their career progress, decisions they've had to make, and ways they navigate career and family. That would be really interesting.
Spencer: I'll definitely keep that in mind as I schedule the next few people. Thank you for your input there.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today, Christina! We loved learning a little bit more about you and we're really looking forward to seeing new developments from Deepcell.
Christina: Great! You're very welcome.
Spencer: Take care everybody, and That's Good Science!
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