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New Faces: Xiangning "Sam" Chen

A professor in the Nevada Institute of Personalized Medicine and in the psychology department, Chen enjoys both research and travel — and says the two have a lot in common.

People  |  Nov 30, 2015  |  By Diane Russell

Professor Xiangning “Sam” Chen says he was surprised — and pleased — by the diversity he found at UNLV. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Although Chen had planned on majoring in physics at college, a twist of fate propelled him into the study of genetics instead.

What is your research focus?

I am a geneticist by training, with broad experience in genomics and bioinformatics. I worked at Virginia Commonwealth University for more than 14 years, focusing on genetic studies of schizophrenia and smoking addiction. During these years, my team discovered several promising candidate genes for schizophrenia and smoking addiction. While the works are important for our understanding of the mechanisms of these disorders, there are gaps to translate these discoveries to clinical practice.

Why UNLV?

I always want to do something that can help those people affected by these problems. When I saw the news that UNLV formed a new institute to study personalized medicine, I thought this was an opportunity to apply what we have learned to improve medical practice.

I joined UNLV as a professor in the Nevada Institute of Personalized Medicine (NIPM) and the department of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts. Under this arrangement, the majority of my work will be aligned with the NIPM mission, and I will also engage my colleagues in the psychology department to facilitate research there.

What additional research are you planning?

While my work here at NIPM is still largely human genetics studies, a new focus is to apply state-of-the-art DNA sequencing technology to discover and characterize genetic variants for willing volunteers to evaluate their genetic risks and treatment options for health-related issues that concern them. In recent years, large-scale genetic studies have accumulated ample evidence that genetic predisposition influences peoples’ health and their risk of developing certain diseases. With the development of new DNA sequencing technologies, it is now practical to conduct a complete survey of genetic variants for each individual.

With this knowledge, it is possible — and increasingly likely — that we can estimate the chances a person will develop a given disease at some point in his life. More importantly, this knowledge will enable us to take preventive measures to intervene, delay, and change the course of the disease. When the disease does occur, this knowledge could provide information for optimal treatment. For example, we can sequence the genome of a volunteer and examine his risk to develop smoking addiction. If he carries many risk variants, he is likely to become addicted should he start smoking. If we have this information before he starts smoking, some preventive measures can be taken, and it is likely to improve his health in general since smoking is a risk factor for many diseases, not just lung cancer.

How did you choose your field?

I got into genetics by accident. When I applied for college in China many years ago, I selected physics as a major. But I did not do too well on my tests (the national entrance tests for colleges in China), so I did not get to the school I wanted. Instead, I was assigned to an agricultural college. This kind of thing happened in China many years ago. (I think) most people who grew up in U.S would find this difficult to understand. (I will save this story for another time). In my college years, I found a few subjects in agriculture interesting; one of these was genetics.  Gradually, I found I liked it.

What surprised you about UNLV?

When I first came to UNLV, I was surprised that it has such diversity in student body and faculty. I believe that diversity is an important environment that encourages openness in study and research. In this environment, novel and unorthodox ideas can be put forward for testing, which I believe is very healthy for scientific research.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Southern China. I experienced the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution in my childhood, and witnessed the hard life in the countryside. I don’t recall I had much formal education before I reached high school. Compared to many of my peers, I was lucky and was enrolled by a college. Although it was not what I hoped for, it changed my life nonetheless.

What is the proudest moment of your life?

If there was a moment in my life that I am proud of, it was my commitment to study genetics in my college years, which led to my graduate studies in Beijing and then to my studies and life in U.S. Genetics was not my first love, but it became my career and my life. I feel lucky and I am happy.

Who is your hero?

I admire many people. My dad sets an example how a man should shoulder the burden of the family. My mom embodies love that nurtures the growth of mind. My wife sacrifices her career and dedicates herself to raising our children. My brothers taught me that blood is thicker than water and family always backs our back. And my friends and colleagues support and encourage me in the highs and lows of my career. They are all my heroes.

What are your pastimes?

I like to take pictures and like nature. I have some pictures at my Flickr site (https://www.flickr.com/photos/schen26/) that you can take a look at. I also like travel — exploring new territory is like doing research, there are always unknowns awaiting your appreciation.