While working at the intersection of science and technology, T.J. Chen, a group product manager for science, has helped her team kickstart its goals to make an impact during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Dale Ramos)
The people closest to our society’s most pressing issues should be the ones to inform solutions and drive change. So when we say to “stay close to the work” at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we mean it. Our teams partner with educators, families, community leaders and organizations, scientists and more to make sure the voices of those impacted are always heard.
In this edition of Stay Close to the Work, we speak with T.J. Chen, a group product manager with our Science Initiative. Discover how T.J. and the infectious disease team empower scientists to understand and detect infectious diseases.
Scientists equipped with skills and access can create far more impact in their own communities when they are in the driver’s seat of their work.
Tell Us About What You Do at CZI.
I work at the intersection of science and technology, managing strategies for our infectious disease efforts domestically and in low- and middle-income countries by developing technology and capacity-building collaborations. This work includes keeping a pulse on the landscape of infectious disease and unmet needs in underserved populations, as well as identifying how CZI can support scientists globally in battling infectious disease in their own communities. My work relies heavily on active engagement with the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Rapid Response team and our scientific partners.
Tell Us About Your Journey to CZI.
When I learned about CZI, two things really stood out to me. First, a major hurdle in building software to support basic science is that it’s difficult to do so at scale without putting a lot of effort into generating revenue. As a result, foundational scientific software can become less focused on democratizing access and more on logistics and operations. Secondly, I was excited to meet the people at CZI — diverse, mission-oriented and working to create change. I was really humbled on my first day to see the breadth of projects and compassion of all the individuals who make up this organization.
How Does Your Work at CZI Relate to Who You Are and Your Values in Life?
In all of our efforts at CZI, we talk about taking luck out of the equation. Over the course of my education, I saw family and friends overseas — many of whom I regard as smarter and more hardworking than myself — struggle to obtain the same level of access to higher education as me. The only difference? My parents were able to immigrate. On the infectious disease team, our goal is to support scientists in their own countries to independently study, detect and track infectious disease with the latest methods. Scientists equipped with skills and access can create far more impact in their own communities when they are in the driver’s seat of their work.
We Know Balancing the Demands of Work and Life Can Be Challenging. What Are Some of Your Favorite Ways to Prioritize Self-Care?
The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, with so many of us losing or being separated from our loved ones. Acknowledging that we are all still struggling in some way and searching for small wins has been really important to me. Before and early in the pandemic, I rarely exercised. Now, my partner and I give ourselves daily blocks of time to exercise virtually with family each morning. Carving out this time helps me start the day with a clearer mind and feel like I have already accomplished something, having spent time with loved ones.
On our team, we also have specific days each month where there are no meetings and no correspondence. Instead, people can use the time for deep work or to recharge.
What’s a Project That You Really Enjoyed and Why?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I noticed many of my teammates wanted to help in some way and were thinking of innovative ways to do so. However, things were moving so fast that it was not easy to sync and combine efforts. So, for 10 days, I dove in and developed a project tracker for all COVID-19-related collaborations between CZI and CZ Biohub. I particularly loved writing a one-page proposal to formalize and pilot genomic epidemiology analysis support in California. It felt rewarding to kickstart goals and help the team define shared, simplified priorities during such a high-stress period.
How Do You Hope to See CZI Evolve and Grow Over the Next Five Years?
I’m looking forward to CZI continuing to evaluate our work so far and taking a critical look at our growth areas. Then, over a longer timeframe, we will be able to see what works objectively and makes a sustainable, impactful change. I am also excited for CZI to continue strengthening our trust and partnership in the communities we serve and look forward to us forging ahead together.