Four lab benches constitute the Chang Lab in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Amy Chang — or Amy, as she prefers to be called — knows every single crevice and corner of them in the same sort of comforting familiarity that comes with knowing one’s home. Amy can often be found bustling around her lab long after the sun has set, tending to her painstakingly cultivated yeast cells, a gel waiting to be run, a fussy serological pipette, while maybe reading a New Yorker cartoon or that week’s issue of The Washington Post in slivers of downtime. More importantly, these lab benches are Amy’s ultimate domain, and she gives every single one of them a kind of remarkably unrestricted love not always seen within the rigid confines of scientific academia. Watching Amy work is like watching a seasoned artist in action; she flits from one task to the next with a methodical tenacity, all while telling me about the new crockpot she bought, her beloved son Tim or how joining a sport is one of the most important things a scientist can do, because it teaches you how to win and lose. Her workspace is strewn with bottles of buffers and growth mediums, tubes of cells, scrawled dates and a stopwatch on constant detail, and mostly a kind of beautiful unorganized chaos that no one but Amy has seemed to grasp an innate understanding of.
To inherently make sense of the complexities of Amy’s lab and her life’s work, it’s important to start with Amy first. After all, a lab is an extension of the scientists operating it. Amy, a New York native, graduated from Harvard University with a degree in biochemistry, received her doctorate in cell biology from Yale University and completed her postgraduate training at both Yale University and the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After sitting down with her last week, I also learned she was a fan of “Pride and Prejudice” and found a Buddha statue at a long-closed consignment shop that she still thinks about often when approaching her research. Amy’s foray into science began with a long commute from Queens, N.Y., to The Bronx High School of Science and was heavily influenced by her scientist father, who nudged her from the ground up to pursue a career centered around the pursuit of scientific discovery. Ultimately, Amy told me that what she loves about her job lies in something much deeper than the coursework she had pursued at the Bronx High School of Science, Harvard, Yale or M.I.T. Rather, it lies in the highly intimate, physical and voracious nature of her work. You see, research is invigorating, groundbreaking, dynamic and ever-changing; more importantly, it seems research is a career path that works in perfect tandem with Amy’s committed, hands-on, intuitive approach to life. Because Amy just seems to know when her yeast cells are in need, when the culture she grew them on lacks just the right amount of glucose or leucine or when their time in the incubator is up, even without the guiding hand of a clock.
Amy is a daughter of immigrants and the only woman of color on faculty in her department. And being a scientist at one of the biggest, highest funded research powerhouses in the country — the University of Michigan — comes with its own unique set of challenges. Scientific discovery is cutthroat, in that dutifully researching the same metabolic pathway out of love for years is simply not enough. Competition is stiff, and studying that metabolic pathway requires money, space and ultimately power. According to Amy, “you feel a lot of elbows” on your way to the top. In likening research to the principles of business, Amy said, “you have to sell yourself” — a practice of which Amy is a veteran. Her work has completely redefined the way academia views endoplasmic reticulum stress response as well as mechanisms of protein folding capacity. And ultimately, her findings are trailblazing, profound and very much reminiscent of Amy.
Though young Amy had other ambitions too: her dreams consisted of one day being a violinist, and she has a soft spot for studio art. In our conversation, she lamented about what could’ve been had she carried out those aspirations instead. But I’d like to counter that Amy is an artist in her own right, because the work she does every day is art, in its own unique, pioneering, Amy-esque way.
Columnist Sarah Akaaboune can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org