James Chen Appointed Chair of Chemical and Systems Bilogy

James Chen, PhD, has been appointed chair of the School of Medicine’s Department of Chemical and Systems Biology. His five-year term began Sept. 1.

“My colleagues in the department were incredibly helpful and supportive when I joined Stanford as an assistant professor,” said Chen, a professor of chemical and systems biology and of developmental biology, who came to Stanford in 2003.

“I look forward to sustaining that collegial and collaborative culture, while helping empower our faculty and students to pursue cutting-edge, innovative science,” he added.

The department, formerly known as the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, changed its name in 2006 to reflect its new mission: to spur interdisciplinary research in chemical biology and systems biology, to build curricula in these subjects and to connect the university’s chemical biology and systems biology communities.

Chen succeeds Tobias Meyer, PhD, professor of chemical and systems biology and the Mrs. George A. Winzer Professor in Cell Biology, as chair of the department, which currently consists of 12 faculty, 50 graduate students and 45 postdoctoral researchers.

Integrating the molecular, quantitative and ‘omic’

“Biomedical science is becoming increasingly molecular, quantitative and ‘omic,’ and our department uniquely integrates all three themes,” said Chen. “Our faculty have also contributed to the broader School of Medicine community by founding the High-Throughput Bioscience Center, the Stanford Center for Systems Biology and SPARK. As we move forward, I would like to build upon that community spirit.”

Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, praised Chen and Meyer in his email to the school’s executive committee members: “A distinguished investigator and a trusted mentor, Dr. Chen is widely respected by colleagues for his commitment to Stanford and his vision for the future of chemical and systems biology. … Please join me in thanking Tobias for his thoughtful leadership and exceptional service and congratulating James on his new role.”

Born and raised in Rolla, Missouri, Chen considers the crayfish in the creek behind his childhood home as his first biology study subjects. He began his formal research training in Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, pursuing research as an undergraduate with professor George Whitesides, PhD, and then completing his doctorate with professor Stuart Schreiber, PhD.

Illuminating developmental biology through chemistry

Chen went on to pursue postdoctoral studies in embryology at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and then at Johns Hopkins University with professor Philip Beachy, PhD, who is now a professor of biochemistry and of developmental biology at Stanford. During this time, Chen combined his interest in organic chemistry and embryonic patterning by investigating how a plant-derived chemical known as cyclopamine induces cyclopia — a rare birth defect characterized by a single eye. His discovery that cyclopamine inhibits the transmembrane protein Smoothened — a Hedgehog pathway component involved in tumor formation — led to the development of anticancer drugs that mimic cyclopamine action.

At Stanford, Chen has pioneered the application of chemical tools in complex biological systems, particularly those related to embryonic development and cancer. For example, his team has synthesized light-activatable molecules for controlling gene expression in zebrafish embryos. More recently, they have been working toward new ways to visualize gene expression in live organisms.

Outside of the laboratory, Chen’s fascination with water-dwelling creatures remains strong. A lover of fly fishing, he’s especially interested in trout. “Fly fishing and scientific research actually have a lot in common — mastering a highly technical discipline, overcoming failure through reasoning and persistence, and finding happiness in the process as much as the purpose. Similar lessons can be learned in the river and in the lab,” he said.

“I would love it if Stanford established a satellite campus in Montana,” he quipped.

In the meantime, he, his wife and their rescue dog live in Mountain View.

Original article by Rosanne Spector, Stanford Medicine News.