A Career in Research with YCIS Shanghai Alumnus Andrew Chang
In times of uncertainty we often look to those before us who have been in our shoes and have walked similar paths. For students who are interested in STEM subjects and are about to apply to university, this may be a familiar feeling since career prospects are not so defined at this stage. Andrew Chang from YCIS Shanghai Pudong’s inaugural class (he joined the school in 1999) shares his journey from his time at Yew Chung to studying abroad in North America, working at Stanford University, and returning to Shanghai to lead the operations of a research lab.
Looking back on your time with YCIS Shanghai Pudong as part of the inaugural class of the school, what was the experience like?
I was with YCIS Shanghai Pudong at both the ECE and Primary school level. Being part of the inaugural class was a very special experience. I recall in Year 6, as we waited for the Regency Park Campus on Huamu Road to complete construction, we spent the academic year in two villas in a compound across from the site. Learning in an environment different from the typical classroom created a lot of lasting memories. I am also particularly thankful to Ms Mary Yu who was our Mandarin teacher between Year 1 and Year 6. Although she was quite strict in the classroom, she paid additional attention to me and a few other students who were in the Traditional Chinese stream. The tough love is something I will never forget.
After Year 7, you relocated to Vancouver and studied at St George’s School. How was the transition and how did you overcome the challenges around settling in a new environment?
I have two elder siblings who had also gone to boarding school in Canada, so I was always curious about what life abroad was like. Admittedly, the experience was slightly traumatic when I first moved to St George’s School. I had to be more independent while adjusting to a different culture. However, since many other boarding students were international students and were new to the school or to the country, we were all in the same boat trying to figure things out, which helped create empathy in building a diverse community.
Later, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, you majored in molecular biology. What sparked your interest in this area?
As I was studying at St George’s School, my brother (now a biochemistry professor) was simultaneously pursuing his PhD in Vancouver. When I visited him on the weekends, he would often take me to the research labs where he worked. This allowed me to gain exposure in research and the lab setting quite early on, which played a part in steering me towards biology. Going over my grades, I had noticed that I also tended to perform better in STEM subjects compared to the humanities, so it made sense for me to play to my strengths and pursue something that not only I did well, but also enjoyed.
Upon completion of your bachelor’s you worked at Stanford University as a researcher. Can you tell us more about your transition from student life to working fulltime?
Before I graduated, I had decided to try to apply to PhD programmes. While this was not uncommon, it was actually not recommended in the US as many schools prefer applicants with one to two years of work experience in research labs to ensure genuine interest and dedication to the subject area. I ended up receiving offers but not for my preferred programmes and decided to take the more conventional route and work at a research lab fulltime instead.
Subsequently, I joined a lab at Stanford University researching on genetically inherited heart diseases. Working fulltime at a research lab compared to lab work as an undergraduate student was definitely a big change. As an undergraduate, I was a research intern and would execute experiments between classes and alongside my mentor. However, as a fulltime employee there were more responsibilities and duties, and the mentality is not the same. There were different expectations.
During my time at Stanford, it was apparent to me that there were plenty of bright minds, good access to resources, and a competitive atmosphere, which were things I highly appreciated. However, this did not mean my peers and I were automatically better researchers without putting in more hard work. The lesson for me was to always put your best foot forward and not to be intimidated by the big names some schools might have. On the other hand, do not feel discouraged when you do not get into your dream school. Students at the top level or top schools are also learning and finding their own paths. With hard work you will still be able to learn, progress, and find success.
Having both studied and worked at universities in the science field, are there any tips you can share for students who are interested in pursuing a STEM major, or specifically molecular biology?
As a start, I must say go for it! Often, we may think STEM majors only lead to career paths in academia, or stereotypical jobs such as a mechanical engineer. However, times have changed and there is a broad range of careers for STEM graduates. Aside from the mentioned paths, other careers could be working in quality control in specialised fields, consultancy work, or even topping up with a Juris Doctor degree to work as a patent lawyer.
For students who already know for certain what STEM major they would like to apply to should consider going outside the classroom to participate in any fairs or conventions relating to their major. Universities like to see students who not only perform well academically, but also have genuine passion, so participating in these fairs or conventions will demonstrate your enthusiasm in the major.
As for students who are interested in the sciences but may not yet have a specific major in mind, I would encourage you to apply, but without declaring a major at this stage (for US universities). In my experience most universities in the US only require students to commit to a major at the end of their second year, and applying without a declared major gives you the flexibility to try different things to find out what you like or dislike, without committing right from the get-go.
A final tip would be to learn more about statistics. While it may not necessarily aid your application, most STEM majors require at least one class of statistics and having some foundation would be incredibly useful.
You are now back in Shanghai. What are you up to and what’s next for you?
In mid-2019, I was contemplating once again whether to pursue a PhD or to continue working. At the same time, my brother wanted to start his own research lab here in Shanghai. This was a natural transition for me to come home while continuing to develop my career. I have been involved with setting up the lab, but with Covid-19, much of our equipment was held up at customs as border control had got much stricter. Now that the situation has improved, we have been able to make good progress here in Shanghai, while other labs overseas may still be finding their feet amidst the pandemic. The name of the lab is Omni Biologic and we are currently working on developing stem cells as well as drug screening and drug development. We are also in the process of applying for a couple of patents and are working to be a supplier for therapeutic equipment and a supplier of cells.
Outside of work, I enjoy travelling and good food, but am trying not to overeat. I also enjoy working out and have recently got into Supermonkey. Working in research allows for flexible working time so this enables me to have a good work-life balance. While doing a PhD is still on my mind, I am also thinking about pursuing an MBA during my time in Shanghai.
If you had one piece of advice for fellow YCIS Shanghai students, what would it be?
For students who will be soon entering university, this must be a stressful time. However, I think it is important for students to know that although it may seem like it, the purpose of university is not to stuff your brain with new information. Instead, it trains you to use resources and knowledge you have access to in a logical and philosophical manner. Going to university or higher education is also a good opportunity to explore and expand your hobbies and horizons. If you have the means to do so, I would encourage you to move away from home and immerse in a different culture, meet new people and try different things. In particular for students who may not be so certain about their career now, this is a process for you to get to know yourself better, so there is no need to get stressed as things will get better.
Special thanks for Mr. C.K.Iu, YCIS Hong Kong Class of 2013 who conducted the interview with Andrew