As a young boy in a small village in China, Dexiang Chen was not chosen by local officials to go to middle school. Now he's a senior technical officer.
Dexiang Chen overturned early expectations to work with vaccines
Dexiang Chen was born in Linshu, a rural town in the Shangdong province of China. During the height of the Cultural Revolution, his career was chosen for him: he would become a farmer.
Dexiang, senior technical officer with PATH, now leads the vaccine stabilization and formulation technologies projects. In more than two decades as a scientist, he has advanced seven patent applications, helped secure some $100 million in funding for research and development, and co-authored more than 50 published research articles. But as a young boy from a small village in 1960s and ’70s China—son of a government worker and a farmer—local officials did not choose him to go on to middle school.
“It was my teachers,” Dexiang says, remembering the day his future changed. “They went to the middle school and said, ‘Take this student.’”
By the time Dexiang was ready for college, the Cultural Revolution had ended. Students were still told what they would study, but this time Dexiang was lucky. He was assigned veterinary medicine. It was an arbitrary decision made by an official he never met, he says, but it sparked two lifelong passions: an intense interest in infectious disease and a longing to apply his work to improve public health.
How to have an impact
While in college in China—a time when his eyes were opened to the larger world, he says—Dexiang decided what he wanted to do with his life. During a course on influenza, he observed peaks of illness that seemed to occur every ten years, followed by pandemic flu every half-century or so. Influenza killed so many people and affected so many families. What would it be like, he wondered, to work toward stopping the epidemics?
“I can utilize everything I’ve learned…suddenly, I could see a big world open up.”
Dexiang made up his mind to study abroad, where the most advanced scientific research was taking place. In 1987 he arrived in Starkville, Mississippi, an admissions letter from Mississippi State University in his hand. After three years he earned a PhD in immunology and microbiology and moved to the University of Alabama to work on mucosal vaccination against HIV, simian immunodeficiency virus, and other infectious diseases.
When the professor leading his lab at Alabama decided to leave academia for industry, Dexiang moved with him. “I went to industry because I wanted to develop real products with real applications,” he says. “I thought, ‘OK. This is a good opportunity.’ And I went to Wyeth Vaccines. Ever since, I’ve stayed on the same track.”
“It was a good fit”
The same track, perhaps, but with some significant differences.
“It was very rewarding,” Dexiang says of his five years at Wyeth, followed by four more as director of conventional vaccines research at Powder Ject Vaccines, Inc. But when Powder Ject was acquired by a bigger vaccine manufacturer, he began to look for ways to get back to his dream: improving public health. In 2004, he stumbled across the job description from PATH.
“Talking to the team when I was interviewing, immediately I sensed this is a project where I can utilize everything I’ve learned,” he says. “Technically, it was a good fit. And this job gave me the opportunity to interact with other researchers, government agencies, and the manufacturers. Suddenly, I could see a big world open up.”
At PATH, Dexiang leads his technical teams in initiatives addressing the stabilization, testing, clinical evaluation, and scale-up of childhood vaccines. He manages more than 20 international collaborations with vaccine producers, stabilization technology companies, suppliers, formulation and fill facilities, and test laboratories. He also oversees vaccine formulation research for PATH’s Enteric Vaccine Initiative and regularly advises colleagues working to develop and refine vaccines for human papillomavirus (a precursor to cervical cancer), tuberculosis, rotavirus, meningitis A, and other infectious diseases that disproportionately affect the developing world.
And in fine weather, he plays basketball with colleagues from PATH’s product development shop and lab on the public court across the street from the Seattle headquarters.
The goal: improve lives
After more than 20 years in the United States, Dexiang and his wife have found a home in Seattle. Dexiang loves to hike and fish, and the couple’s two sons attend nearby universities. Dexiang still travels home to China frequently—both on business and to visit his parents and three siblings.
“Personally, because I grew up in a very poor environment,” he says, “I can really feel the importance of doing something that can impact other lives. I feel that what we do, the goal is to improve the lives of the people who need our help.”
Photo: PATH/Mike Wang.