Student Story

Annie Chen '21 Receives Prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to University of Edinburgh

What inspired you to pursue a degree in biochemistry?

The study of biology and chemistry is beautifully intertwined, and without one or the other, we could barely begin to understand how our body or the world around us functions. With the study of biochemistry, we can answer critical questions such as “How do chemical and biological principles of living things give rise to processes that occur within and between living cells?” The language of biochemistry gives fruition to an understanding of life around us and allows us to solve problems in areas including, but not limited to science, medicine, industry, agriculture, and food science.

At Simmons University, I knew I wanted to combine my knowledge of biochemistry to explore essential questions that relate to genetic research and medicine. Located in the Longwood Medical Center, also called the medical research hub of New England, Simmons is in the ideal place for emerging scientists and physicians. Additionally, the smaller school setting at Simmons allowed me to establish a close relationship with my professors. This allowed me to meet Professor Lopilato who encouraged my research passion in genetics during my junior year of college.

Lastly, Simmons is a women-centered university, and this type of community is unique in that it fosters a sense of belonging among those pursuing traditionally male-dominated fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Tell us about your experience with applying for the Fulbright Scholarship.

The Fulbright US Student Scholarship has been my dream since my first year at Simmons.

In high school, I was part of a Beijing-Exchange program, where my family hosted a Chinese high school student. During my time in the program, I learned from my hostee about the educational culture in China. Then I began wondering about the global experience.

In college, I envisioned a study abroad experience, but I found that my coursework in biochemistry and my responsibilities in research required me to stay in Boston. The benefit of Fulbright is that I could still have a study abroad experience after I graduate. And importantly, Fulbright offers an opportunity for me to apply the communication and technical skills that I have developed over the years to work on a passion in genetics that I have discovered in my junior year of college.

I began my Fulbright application in August where I emailed the principal investigator of the research lab that I’ve worked with for the majority of my college career. Immediately, I was connected to my host affiliate.

Initially, I started an open research grant application, which then became a university-specific application to study for a one-year taught Master of Science (MSc) degree at the University of Edinburgh. This means I actually wrote two grant applications. As I was writing my grant application, I was also writing my personal statement and asking for recommendations—which were all submitted in October, the national deadline. The most difficult part for me was the grant writing, which I made sure was specific and connected to what I really wanted to do and the larger picture of the Fulbright mission.

I was notified of my semi-finalist result at the end of January, received my host institution acceptance in mid-March, then had an interview in mid-February. After the interview, there was an anxious waiting period until early April where I received my finalist status.

The Fulbright US Student Scholarship has been my dream since my first year at Simmons.

What did it feel like to find out you were awarded the scholarship?

I was very surprised. It took a week after I saw the result and many congratulatory messages for me to process it and recognize that I am now part of the Fulbright community. During the waiting periods in between my application submission and semi-finalist notification, I had applied for medical scribe jobs and attended industry job panels in case I was not selected.

The Fulbright application is long and daunting; however, regardless of the result, it is a worthwhile experience to reflect on yourself and delve deep into what exactly you want to do.

Tell us about your plans to study at the University of Edinburgh.

I am going to study for a one-year taught Master of Science (MSc) in Quantitative Genetics and Genome Analysis at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. My study focuses on the application of bioinformatic techniques to medical genetics, followed by a full-time research project for three months. My prospective research project for this degree is to study Rett syndrome (RTT), which is a genetic disorder caused exclusively by mutations in the X-linked methyl-CpG-binding protein 2 (MeCP2) gene, under the supervision of Sir Professor Adrian Bird.

Rett syndrome is a genetic disorder affecting primarily girls who develop normally until ages 6-18 months. Bird’s team generated a mouse model of RTT that recapitulated key clinical signs seen in humans and showed that the RTT symptoms can be reversed in mice. This result indicates that RTT in humans might be treatable and forms my motivation in autism spectrum disorder research.

What do you hope to gain from this experience?

I hope to celebrate my identity as a first-generation, low-income student abroad and inspire students from a similar background to apply for competitive scholarships. I believe what I will learn from the Fulbright experience is endless. I am sure I will gain a strong appreciation for other cultures and beliefs, life-long friendships, and new perspectives, which may change the trajectory of my career. I also believe there is so much to explore in Edinburgh: What is the educational culture in the UK? What are the differences in healthcare between the US and UK? What cultural values will I learn in the UK that I can share with my community back home?

As I embark on my Fulbright journey, I will continue to remember the community that has brought me to where I am today. I recognize the privileged opportunity that I have been given, and I hope to share my success with students from a similar background. Truly the saying, “lifting as we climb” is the basis of my passion for mentorship and teaching.

What is your favorite Simmons memory?

I remember the strong, supportive friendships I had during my time at Simmons. Throughout many exam periods, my friends and I would perspire together in the Beatley Library. As a commuter, my friends would take me as a guest in their dorms when we would study late. We’ve also made many study guides together, went on many food-outings (though mostly in Bartol Hall), and bonded many times online during quarantine in the Undergraduate Journal Club that we created together for the Simmons community. In many ways, my friends have taken care of me, and they still continue to inspire me with their altruism, work ethic, and intelligence to this day.

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