Janice Chen is building the future with biology
"We're really just scratching the surface of what's possible."
Throughout Janice Chen’s life, a healthy view of failure has helped her more than you'd think.
From learning about biology with her dad in their basement to challenging men in chess, to growing organisms in a lab in college, Chen's welcoming of failure has pushed her in developing groundbreaking technologies that will change the way healthcare is provided.
“Scientists face failures all the time, but I don't think of them as failures,” the 29-year-old tells Inverse. “There are times when you set up the experiment and get something that's completely uninterpretable.
"The best kinds of experiments are ones where any answer helps you better understand the system you're working with or the problem you're trying to solve.”
The problem Chen is trying to solve is the development of diagnostic tools based on CRISPR technology, which allows for the editing of genomes. Chen is a co-founder and CTO of Mammoth Biosciences, which was co-founded by CRISPR pioneer and 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Jennifer Doudna, who serves as chair of the biotechnology company’s scientific advisory board.
Inverse spoke with Chen about her favorite failure, how chess has helped her career, and what to expect from her company in the coming year. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of the New Pioneers series.
What was your first exposure to biology?
My dad was a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where I grew up. A lot of people have photos of family and friends on their fridges — our fridge was covered in DNA gel electrophoresis images. Those are images of fragments of DNA that are run on a gel that tell you whether your particular sequence is what you think it is. A lot of times, when my siblings and I would go to my dad's lab, we would have a lot of fun playing with microfuge tubes and other random consumables. Without really understanding molecular biology, I was being exposed to these techniques.
What did you think a biologist did when you were a kid?
A lot of my early conversations with my dad were about understanding DNA and how to replicate DNA. As I learned more about biology and molecular biology, it was really about a fascination of what molecular tools and understanding things at the atomic level can really help enable other kinds of applications
At some level, biology is a lot of clear liquids and moving around clear liquids to do what you want. It's almost like magic in that sense.
It sounds like you've been in the field for your whole life.
In my sophomore year of college, I took a course called “Build a Genome.” In a sense, it was to create viable organisms based on the least common denominator genetic material. A lot of the experiences I had growing up and being able to apply this ability to build an organism from scratch was when I felt like I had crossed some internal barrier and said, ”This is the most exciting thing I can be working on.”
“Scientists face failures all the time, but I don't think of them as failures.”
What's a time you failed in biology?
It's funny; when you talk to scientists, they're like, “Oh man, I tried this, and it completely failed.” But often, those are where you learn the most about how a particular molecule works or where you get the most insight into some sort of unexpected finding. I always found those kinds of “failures” the most exciting. In fact, initially, I thought the discovery of CRISPR diagnostics capability for the proteins was a failure because we had a control in the experiment that just continued to create these strange results.
Typically, when your controls aren't working out as you expect, that's a failure, because there's something that you haven't properly designed for. But following what I thought was a failure actually turned into a discovery. In that sense, that's my favorite failure, because it basically changed the way we thought about how these proteins worked, and really kicked off this DNA detection capability of an enzyme that no one had previously seen before.
What's a rookie mistake you've made?
I don't know if it's a mistake, but one thing that I've had to manage personally is my inner self-critic. A lot of women, and certainly women in leadership roles, struggle with that as well as some level of imposter syndrome.
Often, that has led me to maybe not be as vocal as I could be. It's something that I've had to learn to navigate, especially in the role that I hold today, as well as all of the work leading up to it, to make sure that I can confidently state the conclusions of the findings, but also be able to accept the fact that I am an expert in my area of the field and be an advocate for myself and the work that's been done.
Probably the silliest mistakes I made were because I didn't believe in myself as much as I could have. None of that has been detrimental in any way, but certainly, I wish I learned to be more outspoken earlier in my career. I'm slowly getting there.
What's one thing you tell your teenage self?
When I was younger, I was not so confident in myself in certain scenarios, or I was just nervous and shy. Since starting the company, there have been moments when I felt completely overwhelmed. There were just so many challenges to solve at once. I had to figure out a methodical way of doing it. I think those are some of the best moments in terms of being able to manage that discomfort and realize that I can get over it.
I would tell my younger self, when you feel overwhelmed or just completely stressed out, there's a way to get past it.
How do you think you've changed your field?
I'm proud of the studies that my colleagues and I have worked on and the findings around how CRISPR proteins work, understanding the mechanistic details, so other people can continue to build on that work and transform it into something meaningful as either a therapeutic or diagnostic.
We have a lot of work ahead of us, but across that spectrum, we've been able to do some really incredible things because of curiosity-driven science and being able to follow the data and transform it into something meaningful.
What's your superpower?
Being focused and super passionate about what I do.
I have this crazy determination to take these new tools and be able to create products that will improve people's lives. That determination and seeing them through and setting goals, both personally and professionally, is something that I've been proud of.
What's a prediction you have for 2030?
We're going to see CRISPR as a technology and tool infiltrate many areas of healthcare. Even in the past few days, there were amazing breakthroughs.
CRISPR has been able to reach its potential as a genetic medicine for sickle cell anemia with some of the patients in clinical trials showing promising results. That's just the first step but an important one of showing what's possible with CRISPR.
On the diagnostic side, one of the main goals of the company is to deploy CRISPR across the entire spectrum of detection and diagnostics. So things all the way from centralized laboratories to decentralized formats, like a pregnancy test for molecular detection that doesn't exist today. Ten years from now, we will absolutely see CRISPR products on the market.
What do you do on a day off?
Running has been my release and my way of synthesizing everything going on in my head. It's my escape when things are crazy. I also enjoy going on hikes with my dog.
I grew up playing chess — I used to be a competitive player — and recently my husband has been wanting to play me. We've played about 15 games or so in the past week. I've, of course, won every game. Chess is something I'm getting back into. I stopped during college, because there were other things that I was going after, particularly science.
But today, thinking about strategy, tactics, and my learnings, the game has been fun to lean back into, especially that I'm in this new world. I've gained a lot of skills playing competitive chess.
How do you think playing chess has helped with your career?
Chess is a game of the mind, so it helps with any job or pursuit that involves critical thinking, hard work, and mental strength. There's a lot of focus and determination that has to happen, a lot of thinking strategically and executing on tactics. Those are the terms that we use as we plan where the company is going. All of those different kinds of concepts, especially the critical thinking aspect, has been something that's persisted through my life since I learned chess when I was 5 or 6.
The other aspect is chess is an extremely male-dominated game. I had a lot of role models growing up, female grandmasters who were totally invested in making sure that chess was accessible to everyone, especially girls. Having those role models and being able to handle tournaments, where maybe you're the only female or the youngest female, and be able to beat older men on the board was extremely empowering.
“It's always about making sure we're moving in the right direction.”
If your biography were written today, what would the title be and who would you want to write it?
I would definitely want to write it. It would be really fun to start pulling together all these different elements of the past three decades. For the title, gosh, maybe some variation of How to Win.
Who is a game-changer that you want to shout out?
The first person that comes to mind is Jennifer Doudna, who has been a real champion, role model, and mentor for me, especially as I've navigated grad school, learned how to be a scientist all the way through starting a company and thinking about building the future. That's just her influence on me, but her influence on society at large is truly game-changing. That's a big part of the recognition that she recently received with a Nobel Prize. I feel so grateful to have Jennifer as a mentor and champion.
What motivates you?
In our current times, we don't have enough testing to fulfill the needs of all patients, even the tests to support the physicians and healthcare workers at the frontlines of the pandemic. This is a tangible thing that I feel is such a strong motivator, because the need is just incredible. It's mind-boggling that, even now, we don't have the right deployment of the tools necessary to fight back. So the work that we're doing, I feel, is some of the most important things we could be focused on.
What's next for you?
Mammoth is working toward its first product launch early next year, and I think that's going to be a significant milestone for the company. It's almost like seeing the baby grow up, go out into the world, and be able to serve a critical need. That's what we've been working day and night to get to.
What’s the product?
It’s a high throughput CRISPR-based diagnostic test. Together with Hamilton Company and MilliporeSigma, we’ll be launching a turnkey solution where any laboratory can run a full CRISPR solution from sample to answer that will hopefully reduce major bottlenecks and get results turned around in a timely manner. We're really excited about being able to provide this service to labs that are struggling to keep up with demand and keep their systems running. Our solution will be light on the staff needed to run the system, and also be able to turn through a lot more tests in a given shift.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
From a technology standpoint, we're really just scratching the surface of what's possible with CRISPR. I'm really proud to be part of the forefront of technology and help build the future with biology.