Growing up in Texas, then Calgary, Paul Chen (ChemE PhD 2Q2) wasn’t quite sure what he wanted out of his career – but he knew he loved building.
“When I was little, that meant using Lego bricks, cards, cassette tapes and anything else I could get my hands on. My family still jokes that I discovered countless ways to create obstacles to walking,” he says.
“In engineering, I saw a way in which atoms and molecules could become my new building blocks. I wanted to build materials that could help people.”
Today, Chen assembles atoms of metals — such as gold, silver and palladium — into nanoparticles that could unlock new ways to diagnose or treat disease. His cutting-edge work has earned him a 2022 Schmidt Science Fellowship, an honor he shares with 28 other researchers from around the world.
Nanoparticles are tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair and are used in technologies ranging from solar panels and video screens to drug delivery vehicles.
Because many properties of nanoparticles depend on their structure, Chen and his collaborators investigated how nanoparticles are formed from atoms, their basic building blocks.
By leveraging these insights, Chen precisely synthesizes nanoparticles for use in biomedical applications. For example, nanoparticles could be used to drive new medical diagnostic techniques with the potential to be faster, more accurate or less expensive than those used today.
The Schmidt Science Fellowship comes with a scholarship of US$100,000 per year for up to two years, to be applied towards postdoctoral studies at an institution of the recipient’s choice.
“I feel tremendously fortunate to be a Schmidt Science Fellow,” he says. “This opportunity means that at an early career stage and in a supportive environment, I have the intellectual freedom to pursue high-stakes interdisciplinary research ideas.”
Chen has already demonstrated the ability to pivot quickly and collaborate with researchers outside of his field. Although he started his PhD with a focus on the fundamental behavior of the atoms that make up nanoparticles, the arrival of COVID-19 in Canada made him rethink his path.
“While I knew little about viruses or epidemiology in early 2020, I thought that maybe my skills could allow for unique research that might not have been completed,” he says.
“My advisor, teacher Frank Gu (ChemE, BME), supported me in pivoting my research and finding collaborators, including Professor David Fisman at the U of T Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Professor Marion Koopmans at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands.”
Combining engineering, virology and epidemiology approaches, the team worked to better understand why superspreading drives the COVID-19 pandemic, as it was not the case with the last pandemic, the H1N1 flu in 2009. In addition, they studied the kinetics of the virus that causes COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2, in the respiratory tract.
“We also model the extent to which SARS-CoV-2 is expelled by droplets and aerosols, providing support for the role of aerosol transmission in COVID-19,” says Chen. “Our work has helped to understand how people contract infections like COVID-19 and has pointed to possible ways to contain transmission.”
Chen says what attracted him to the U of T was the density of researchers and the opportunities for collaboration — especially across disciplinary boundaries.
“U of T has engineers, chemists, biologists, physicists, epidemiologists, medical professionals, social scientists, humanities academics, business people and many others nearby,” he says. “I learned that cross-disciplinary interactions in a community like ours facilitate creative, forward-looking science.”
“Paul is one of the most talented, capable and promising researchers I’ve had the privilege of working with in my career,” says Gu. “Each day, he commits to becoming a better researcher than the day before. He shares his vision through his innate drive and has a strong sense of his responsibility to build a better world through science.”
“Collaboration across disciplines is the cornerstone of our mission here at U of T Engineering,” says Dean Chris Yip. “Paul Chen’s journey – and this award – underline why this type of cross-pollination is so important and how it drives understanding, innovation and progress. We are very proud of Paul’s great achievement – congratulations on behalf of the faculty.”
While Chen has not yet decided where he wants to undertake the interdisciplinary research that the Schmidt Fellowship will make possible, he is grateful for the opportunity it represents.
“I feel privileged to be part of a lifelong community of fellows who are diverse in background and focus, but similar in their passion to use science to help build a better world,” he says. “I would like to thank Professor Gu, my lab colleagues and our collaborators for a wonderful doctoral experience. I feel lucky to have been on this journey with them.”