Urbana, Ill. Joy Chen, a former Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) student, is attending the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) and University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Joint Bioengineering Program this fall, where she hopes to continue conducting research.  

Chen, also a recently graduated bioengineering student from the University of Illinois, is especially eager to gain experience in more focused fields of research during her time at UC Berkeley and UCSF. Cell and tissue engineering, for example, is one area of research which she hopes to further explore in the upcoming semester.

“Cell and tissue engineering, like disease modeling with microfluidics, are areas that I don’t really have experience in yet,” Chen said. “[This past year], there were no in-person labs and we didn’t get to do any of the higher level cell and tissue engineering labs, so I’m hoping to rotate through some of the tissue engineering labs over at Berkeley.”

In addition, Chen plans to rotate through breast cancer-focused labs, an area of research with which she is already familiar with due to her time at the University of Illinois.

A rotation program and a school that would allow her ample time in the research lab were factors that were especially important to Chen in her search for a graduate school. She hopes that this structure will allow her to discover which fields of research are the best fit.

“I think a rotation program was especially important to me because we didn’t get to do in-person things, like seeing the school or seeing the lab, or meeting professors and students in-person [last year],” Chen said. “Having options and seeing what you like in the first year is important.”

While excited to enter a new learning environment, Chen is appreciative of the skills and experiences she gained during her undergraduate career at the University of Illinois, and states that the CCIL’s Cancer Scholars program was especially impactful.

As a Cancer Scholar, Chen was able to continue working under Erik Nelson, assistant professor of molecular and integrative physiology, who she began to work with as a high-school student in the CCIL’s researcHStart summer program.

An especially memorable project in the Nelson lab involved breast cancer dormancy, which also focused on examining cholesterol and its effects on breast cancer.

“I did a lot of work with animal models, looking at different dormancy models, and how 27-hydroxycholesterol plays a role in the recurrence of cancer from dormancy — which is a tricky thing to study,” Chen said.

Chen contributed to this research in the Nelson lab throughout her entire undergraduate career, and treasures the research skills that she gained, which she says will prove useful in her future career.

While looking back at her application process, Chen advises prospective students to recognize their accomplishments, and to feel confident and proud of those achievements during the application process for graduate programs.

“You spent the last four years working really hard in your classes, getting your research done, being a part of clubs, [in] leadership, and so now is your time to put that all on paper and shine in front of the admissions committees,” Chen said.


– Written by Dani Ciesielski, CCIL Marketing and Outreach Intern

researcHStart and the Cancer Scholars Program are Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) education programs that allow students to gain experience and knowledge within the fields of cancer research. researcHStart is an eight-week program that pairs high school students from the Chicago and Champaign-Urbana areas with Illinois researchers. Cancer Scholars is an undergraduate program that provides unique and interdisciplinary student learning experiences through clinical, patient-oriented, and entrepreneurial opportunities, alongside exposure to research and grand challenges early in undergraduate careers. Click here to learn more about the CCIL Education and Training programs.

Click here to read more about the 27-hydroxycholesterol research taking place in Erik Nelson’s labs.