Mentorship Spans Cultures

By Contributing Writer - December 20, 2018

When Yongzi Chen, PhD, arrived from Tianjin, China, to Tampa to work at Moffitt as a postdoc, she immediately noticed how cordial the people were. "They were really nice and helped me a lot through the process of orientation," Yongzi said.

It was a warm beginning for a two-year stay. Yongzi came to Tampa as part of the partnership between Moffitt and Tianjin, in which postdocs from her country work at Moffitt on joint research projects. Each year Moffitt trains approximately 10 postdocs from Tianjin. So far, more than 60 have trained at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Her viewpoint on achieving success in her science career? "Working with smart people and pushing yourself to do the things you like is good for your career."

This strong woman indeed pushed herself to leave what was familiar to come to Tampa. Previous travels took Yongzi to a 2009 conference in Sweden and a 2013 visit to Moffitt to learn more about the Total Cancer Care Program. She says even as a child she aspired to travel as part of her work. But this time it was a two-year commitment. Yongzi would need to apply her past training as an assistant researcher at the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital, in addition to learning new scientific skills and knowledge while at Moffitt.

Her educational qualifications are impressive, with a BS in biotechnology and a PhD in bioinformatics, along with a command of various computer programming languages and operational systems. Building on her education and experience, her postdoc work at Moffitt focused on biostatistics.

Yongzi developed four individual drug models for breast cancer during her time at Moffitt. As the lead author for an article published in the journal Endocrine Related Cancer, she detailed developing a prediction model using biomarkers from cell line data to predict treatment response for breast cancer patients.

“This is precision medicine, because the research was designed to predict who would or would not respond to chemotherapy treatment,” said Yongzi.

Over the last year of her postdoc work at Moffitt, Yongzi also started learning methods associated with the analysis of the microbiome, with research focused on the gut microbiome and its relationship with colon cancer. Her aim is to continue working on this collaboration with her Moffitt colleagues and to gain additional experience in studies dealing with the microbiome.

As this issue of Momentum was in production, Yongzi’s time at Moffitt came to an end. She says her Moffitt training has added to her skill set, and she returned to Tianjin with the aim of performing cancer research similar to what she had been doing at Moffitt.

“Before I barely knew anything about statistics, but I learned a lot about it from the people here. In the future, I will apply what I learned to my work and collaborate with more clinicians,” Yongzi said.

Back in Tianjin, Yongzi works in the Tumor Biology Lab. Her scientific research concentrates on bioinformatics and biotechnology.

While in Tampa, Yongzi was impressed with the natural beauty of the area, enjoying the open sky and clouds. Back in China on her rare off days you might find her mountain climbing and photographing the vistas from the high mountains in Beijing.

“I like the feeling [I get] when climbing to the top of the mountain.” No doubt Yongzi has many more mountains to climb and many more scientific findings to discover.

Mentors Become Friends 

Some mentors grow their relationships with those they mentor beyond that of a tutor, teacher or guru. For Moffitt researchers Y. Ann Chen, PhD, and Brooke Fridley, PhD, their experience mentoring a postdoc from China has yielded close collaboration and long-term friendships with a valued colleague. The colleague is Yongzi Chen, PhD.

Fridley, who chairs Moffitt’s Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Department, recalls her first experience as a mentor early in her career. In the summer of 2004 she mentored middle-schoolers through a Girls in Science Workshop involving design of experiments at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “It was a lot of fun, and the girls liked doing the hands-on work,” said Fridley. Although Fridley has continued to mentor numerous people with varying levels of education throughout her career, she never thought she would be mentoring a research postdoc from as far away as China.

Fridley credits her own mentor from her days at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Mariza de Andrade, who later encouraged her to change her career path and get back into research. At La Crosse Fridley was primarily teaching, which she enjoyed, but her heart was pulling her toward research, which she loved. “It was a strong woman that got me to where I am through mentoring. I would have to credit Dr. de Andrade,” said Fridley.

Enter another mentor at Moffitt for Yongzi Chen. Who better to mentor Yongzi than a researcher not only with education and experience in biostatistics but also with firsthand knowledge of the importance of befriending a newcomer making the transition from a faraway place to a new culture?

The same last name is “coincidence” as the two women are not related and Ann Chen hails from Taiwan, where she earned a BS in Zoology at National Taiwan University. She also worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Biomedical Science, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. Ann Chen later came to the U.S. in 1996, earning an MS in Marine Biology at the University of Charleston, followed by a PhD in Biostatistics and Bioinformatics at the Medical University of South Carolina, all the while working as a research assistant. Now at Moffitt, Ann Chen is an associate member in the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics.

Research mentorship plays a key role in the Tianjin-Moffitt partnership, and the two Chens and Fridley have forged a strong affiliation over the two-year mentorship. It is the expectation of the leaders in China that the postdocs will publish papers as part of the partnership, a task that Yongzi has achieved.

As this issue of Momentum was in production, Fridley and Ann Chen were working with Yongzi Chen to wrap up her existing research projects. They also were planning the refreshments and activities for a department farewell party for Yongzi, whose time at Moffitt was drawing to a close. The mentoring relationship, fostered and nurtured among these three researchers, is likely to continue as the three plan to correspond and collaborate on future projects.


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