Wencong Chen grew up a world away from the low-hanging trees and sunny skies of Waco in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, China. Despite being one of the most affluent provinces in the country, his early life was littered with poverty and “battle-testing” moments. Still, he persevered and graduated top of his class from Zhejiang University of Technology in Hangzhou. After graduation, he received a position at a test agency that dealt with Japanese and Korean languages, but his curiosity soon got the better of him. He would often wonder the difference between a passing and failing mark among the thousands of test records he was handling. As a result, he came to the United States and enrolled at New Mexico State (NMSU) in Las Cruces, where his wife was obtaining her PhD, to pursue a master’s degree in statistics.
While at NMSU, he discovered that his true calling was to be a statistician. He continued toward his dream when he joined the Baylor family in 2013 as a doctoral student. The decision to choose Baylor was admittedly a difficult one as other schools from around the area were also interested in the recent Aggie graduate. Ultimately, he was most impressed by our beautiful campus, small class size, recent awards (we were honored by the American Statistical Association with the Statistical Partnerships among Academe, industry, and Government Award in 2012), and cutting-edge Bayesian research.
As he was researching pharmaceutical companies to intern at over the summer, the doctoral student was also welcoming a baby to his family. Unfortunately, his newborn daughter could not be taken home and was keep in the NICU of the Baylor Scott and White Medical Center under the watchful eye of Dr. Patel. After some observation, the doctor strongly suggested that Wencong’s daughter had to take the Fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) genetic test, which maps the genetic material in a person’s cells. It is usually used to visualize specific genes or portions of genes and to help spot abnormalities.
The new father was at a loss. He didn’t know if his newborn had a genetic disease that was still baffling the science community. He didn’t know how to tell his wife that their baby girl might not have a “normal” life. He didn’t know if he was ready for such heavy responsibilities. He didn’t know what to do. Then, a colleague reached out and encouraged him to share a picture of his daughter with their department. What came next can only be described by Wencong as a “happy blessing from our warm community.”
The next few weeks were some of the longest and hardest as they waited for the test to return from a genetics lab on the West Coast. While still searching for a summer internship, Wencong lived in the parking lot of the hospital during this period to “save small pieces of time” and to make sure that his daughter was never alone. He made it through the screening process at one of the only companies still recruiting, Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical, which, according to their site, is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company committed to bringing to market novel products for the treatment of rare and ultra-rare diseases, with a focus on serious, debilitating genetic diseases.
After two more rounds of interviews, Wencong finally got the offer. He had to divert from his preferred topic of survival analysis and his dissertation work on time-to-event data, which was challenging since his entire time at Baylor had been devoted to the subject, to topic that is required for most genetic drug developments: longitudinal data analysis. Fortunately, he had an understanding mentor in Dr. James Stamey, a professor in the statistical science department, who lent his support the throughout the process. Wencong’s internship experience at Ultragenyx in Novato, California shocked him. The soon-to-be Baylor grad never realized the large amount of genetic diseases that lack the available drugs to cure. In fact, he said that there are over 7,000 types of rare diseases in the world and three million people in the United States who suffer from them. It’s no surprise that after graduation he returned to Novato to work at Ultragenyx as a biostatistician.
During our email conversations, Wencong shared a Washington Post article about Julianna, a four-year-old girl in Washougal, Washington. She was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease (CMT), which, according to the article and to the National Institutes of Health, is one of the world’s most common inherited neurological disorders. There are many mutations of CMT that have symptoms that range in severity. Unfortunately, Julianna had one of the worst cases and, after speaking with her parents about it for weeks, decided one day to forgo the painful treatment. She passed away soon after.
Wencong wanted to share his story, but, more importantly, wanted people to know that Baylor grads are fighting to find the cure for these rare genetic diseases. Baylor is also a leader in the research of cancer, which, according to the American Cancer Society, affects more than one million people in the country each year. As written in the spring edition of the university’s Arts and Sciences Magazine, “Arts and Sciences faculty have helped Baylor bring in more than $5 million in grants and other funding during the past six years to study cancer, and the University’s current strategic plan, Pro Futuris, provides a foundation for even more growth in the future.”
I love going to the football, basketball, and baseball games, but these stories and accomplishments make me more proud to be a Baylor Bear then anything that happens inside a stadium or arena. It shows that our university is trying to make a difference and I really couldn’t ask for anything more. As for the results of Wencong’s daughter’s FISH tests, they came back negative and she will enjoy a long, healthy, and happy life.
By Matthew Doyen