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‘Genius’ of Memory

‘Genius’ of Memory

Alumna Wins MacArthur Award

It’s official. As one of the 2005 winners of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, USC College alumna Lu Chen (Ph.D., Neuroscience, ’98) is a “genius.”

Chen, a neurobiologist at UC Berkeley, said receiving the Fellowship “was a huge surprise. I never thought it would happen to me.”

When she received an early morning call about the award in September, her first response, she said, was “What?!”

Her former adviser, Richard F. Thompson, was not so surprised. “She is one of the most outstanding students I have ever had,” said Thompson, the W.M. Keck Professor of Biological Sciences and Psychology in the College and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

The MacArthur Fellowships, commonly referred to as “genius grants,” are awarded annually to individuals who show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work. Recipients can use the five-year, unrestricted $500,000 grants as they wish.

Chen, 33, was one of 25 winners nationwide, including scholars, artists, writers and others “willing to take risks, transcend and expand boundaries,” MacArthur program director Dan Socolow told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Chen earned her B.S. in molecular biology in her native China, but had always been interested in the brain and memory. “Memory was something that even a naïve student could relate to their everyday life,” she said. Accepted into USC’s program, she read about Thompson’s work in the program brochure. Before arriving on campus, she had set her sights on working with him.

“Dick is probably the smartest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Chen said. “I consider myself very lucky to have joined his lab. What I treasure most was the emphasis on independent thinking.”

Chen’s dissertation research focused on identifying neural pathways in the cerebellum important in learning, looking at both the genetic and cellular levels. Using a strain of mutant mice, Chen and Thompson were the first to show that the cerebellar cortex facilitates learning in mice and controls the timing of behaviors, she said.

After postdocs at USC and UC San Francisco, Chen joined the Cal faculty in 2003, where her husband and fellow neuroscientist Shaowen Bao also works.

Chen has made a number of contributions to the basic biology of learning and memory. While she continues to study the mutant mice she worked with at USC, her scientific interests have broadened in recent years.

She studies synapses, the junctures between nerve cells that transmit critical signals from one cell to the next, and the role of the neurotransmitter glutamate at synapses. She has developed a powerful lab model, called the hybrid cell system, to better study the problem.

“We’re interested in the molecular mechanisms of synaptic formation, studying the roles of different proteins in the process,” she said. “If we understand how it works normally, that would provide insight into what we can do if it doesn’t work,” as in some neurological diseases.

What will Chen do with the $500,000? “I’ll be putting it into savings.”