Graduate Student Spotlight: 5 Questions with Chi Peng

Chi Peng is a graduate student in the Integrated Biomedical Sciences (IBS) program at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine seeking a PhD in pharmacology. She shares her path to graduate school and how her work in IBS will prepare her for her future career in research.

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

A: I was born in Taiwan, but when I turned 8 years old, my mother moved my two older sisters and me to New York City. The only thing we knew about the U.S. was the music and movies we watched growing up such as “The Addams Family” and Backstreet Boys. Needless to say, my expectation of NYC was completely distorted, and I was forced to quickly learn how to navigate in a fast-paced, overcrowded, foreign-speaking reality.

If someone had told me that one day, I would be in graduate school right now, my family and I would have laughed at such a far-fetched statement.

Q: Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

A: In high school, I had really broken English, which made learning even more challenging. Thus, upon graduating from high school, I thought I would major in economics. However, during my freshmen year at Berea College, I decided to take a basic biology course that intrigued my curiosity in the world of science. I had the opportunity to conduct research on parasitic infection in freshwater invertebrates. My project focused on the commensalism relationship between parasites. This study has also revealed an unknown cercaria found in the snail of the same ecosystem. I proposed to identify this unknown parasite through DNA analysis. My results were presented at the 2017 Kentucky Academy of Science conference and was awarded first place in oral presentation. Through these opportunities I furthered my interest in research by continuing to explore a different aspect of biomedical science beginning at Vanderbilt University, then going on to University of Colorado and Eli Lilly and Company. With these collective experiences, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in biomedical research. However, I knew I wanted to attend a school that focused on integrated biomedical research with clinical studies that can provide me with the training and tools to translate my conceptual ideas into reality.

When my sister told me about her studies in the IBS program at UK, I knew I had found my dream school. The IBS program cultivates an interdisciplinary approach that is essential for innovative research. The departments and scientists here incorporate important skill courses, such as the research seminars and journal clubs. This not only allowed us to advance our ­­scientific knowledge, but the ability to communicate these complex research findings. These are some of the many things that set IBS apart from all other PhD programs, and it is exactly why I wanted to become an IBS student. Research and technology continue to redefine our knowledge, and it is only through programs such as the IBS that will allow students like myself to continue to thrive and prosper. My enthusiasm for research rapidly grows as my experience accumulates. The IBS program will continue to nourish my still naïve and very young life in research. Being able to study in such a prestigious graduate program is not merely a childhood dream or a fleeting obsession; it is a realistic future for which I have a passionate, long-term commitment.

Q: What research problem are you trying to solve?

A: I am currently working in Dr. Sidney Whiteheart’s lab, investigating the role of platelets in obesity and its associated diseases. When I first started researching obesity and diabetes, I was shocked to find out that in the coming 25 years, one in three Americans would be obese. Currently, there are 41 million children and 650 million adults that are obese. Studies have shown that overweight children are more likely to become obese adults, and they are more likely than non-overweight children to develop diabetes and cardiovascular disease at a younger age, leading to a higher risk or premature death and disability. But what makes all of this even more terrifying and perhaps the most important aspect of my research is the fact that anyone can be affected, no matter what social or economic background you are from. Obesity is a multifactorial disease with many co-morbidities (i.e. diabetes mellitus, cancer, fatty liver, and hypertension) leading to multi-organ dysfunction including thrombotic disorders such as myocardial infarctions, ischemic stroke, atherosclerosis, and pulmonary embolism. Essentially, your whole body is deteriorating every second it is left untreated. Thus, I hope to be able to develop a combined therapeutic treatment that would not only prolong the lives of these individuals, but prevent the ensuing secondary co-morbidities.

Q: What do you enjoy about research?

A: The process of forming a hypothesis based on a curiosity to developing an experiment that would lead to a scientific discovery was the reason why I fell in love with research. But the one thing that really motivates me every day is knowing that the research I am doing now is contributing to a bigger cause, and maybe one day it would make a difference in the lives of many patients and their families who rely on the improvement of drug therapies to save their loved ones. Just like the COVID-19 pandemic, it took many countries and laboratories to come together to develop a vaccine that could potentially save millions of patients. I hope to be able to do the same for obese and diabetic patients, collaborating with the medical doctors and scientist here at UK, all striving to achieve the same goal of saving millions of patients from suffering.

Q: What is next for you?

A: Since my first year as a graduate student, I always knew I wanted to work in the clinical setting and work directly with patients and doctors. Thus, when I met a medical science liaison (MSL) through Dr. Hollie Swanson and Dr. Nathan Vanderford’s course, “Preparing Science Professionals,” I knew I had found my dream job. An MSL is someone who connects biomedical research with medicine by coordinating between the physicians and the company they work for, ensuring all clinical trials are going smoothly and answering any questions or issues that might arise.