January 13, 2014 |

Dexiang Chen: a life in science

Portrait of Dexiang Chen in blue shirt and wire-rim glasses.
Dexiang Chen pursued a career in science after nearly being assigned life as a farmer during China’s Cultural Revolution. Photo: PATH/Mike Wang.

Dexiang Chen was born in Linshu, a rural town in Shangdong Province, China. During the height of the Cultural Revolution, his career was chosen for him: he would become a farmer.

Dexiang now leads the vaccine stabilization and formulation technologies projects at PATH. In more than two decades as a scientist, he has advanced several patent applications, helped secure millions of dollars in funding for research and development, and coauthored more than 50 published research articles. But as a young boy from a small village in 1960s and ’70s China—son of a government worker and a farmer—local officials did not choose him to go on to middle school.

“It was my teachers,” Dexiang says, remembering the day his future changed. “They went to the middle school and said, ‘Take this student.’”

By the time Dexiang was ready for college, the Cultural Revolution had ended. Students were still told what they would study, but this time Dexiang was lucky. He was assigned veterinary medicine. It was an arbitrary decision made by an official he never met, he says, but it sparked two lifelong passions: an intense interest in infectious disease and a longing to apply his work to improve public health.

How to have an impact

Dexiang made up his mind to study abroad, where the most advanced scientific research was taking place. In 1987 he arrived in Starkville, Mississippi, an admissions letter from Mississippi State University in his hand. After four years, he earned a PhD in immunology and microbiology and moved to the University of Alabama to work on mucosal vaccination against HIV and other infectious diseases.

When the professor leading his lab at Alabama decided to leave academia for industry, Dexiang moved with him. “I went to industry because I wanted to develop real products with real applications,” he says. “I thought, ‘OK. This is a good opportunity.’ And I went to Wyeth Vaccines. Ever since, I’ve stayed on the same track.”

The same track, perhaps, but with some significant differences. In 2004, Dexiang stumbled across a job description from PATH.

A good fit at PATH

“Talking to the team when I was interviewing at PATH, immediately I sensed this is a project where I can utilize everything I’ve learned,” says Dexiang. “Technically, it was a good fit. And this job gave me the opportunity to interact with other researchers, government agencies, and the manufacturers. Suddenly, I could see a big world open up.”

At PATH, Dexiang leads his teams in initiatives addressing the stabilization, testing, clinical evaluation, and scale-up of childhood vaccines. He manages international collaborations with vaccine producers, stabilization technology companies, and test laboratories. He also regularly advises colleagues working to develop and refine vaccines against infectious diseases that disproportionately affect the developing world.

“Personally, because I grew up in a very poor environment, I can really feel the importance of doing something that can impact other lives,” he says. “I feel that what we do, the goal is to improve the lives of the people who need our help.”

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