Elizabeth Chen was a woman in a hurry when she arrived at UMass Boston’s Gerontology Department in 2012.
Chen had already lived through two highly successful but very different careers, as a biotech chief executive and the president of a college. After receiving a master’s degree from the Harvard School of Public Health, she came directly to UMass to pursue master’s and PhD degrees in gerontology, and prepare herself for a third act.
Chen’s latest career move, this time as a public health executive, took a big step forward in September. She was recently named assistant commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, to provide senior leadership and oversee the state’s Bureau of Health Care Safety and Quality, the Bureau of Health Professions Licensure and the state’s Determination of Need program.
“I’ve reinvented myself so many times,” says Chen. “I don’t plan these things, they just happen. But I’m an opportunist and I follow my nose. My mantra is: What am I good at, what does the world need, and how do I marry the two.”
Actually, Chen had been making plans to shift into a new public health career as soon as she arrived at Harvard. While she was there, Chen became interested in gerontology and literally discovered the UMass Boston program in a Google search. She soon concluded it would be an important next step for her, but time was an issue.
“I showed up at age 49 and said, ‘I’m not getting any younger. I can’t spend six or seven years at this,’” she recalled.
“I was trying to be very efficient. It’s different for other students who are younger, because they are in a period of exploration and they should take their time. But I wasn’t,” said Chen, who completed her
studies at UMass Boston in January 2016. In fact, she set a new standard by finishing her PhD studies faster than any other gerontology student in UMass Boston history.
Chen’s third career is the latest chapter in a remarkable story of a seven-year-old girl who arrived in Boston from Taiwan with her family literally penniless. Her parents had accidentally left behind the cash that was their life savings.
As a youngster, Chen initially learned English at the Quincy School near Chinatown, then went to class in Boston’s North End during the city’s court-ordered school busing era. She went on to the Boston Latin School, graduated from Yale University and received an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Chen put her business degree to work in the pharmaceutical, then biotechnology industry and became the founding chief executive of Marathon Biopharmaceuticals in 1996. Later, she become CEO of another company, Circe Biomedical.
Her next unlikely move: taking over as president of the New England College of Optometry. With no background in higher education administration or training in optometry, Chen led the school to higher national board exam success rates and increased eye care visits. When the graduate education loan market collapsed in 2008, the college developed an internally funded lending program so that students, whose lenders exited the market, could continue pursuing their degrees.
Chen has had an interest in public health for most of her life. She recalls writing her Yale application essay on the importance of access to health
care. In a way, she thinks of her latest professional turn as a development 35 years in the making.
At Harvard, Chen became particularly interested in end-of-life issues, which later became the focus of her gerontology dissertation. She credits the gerontology faculty at UMass Boston for helping her prepare for a new field.
“I never felt that the faculty were trying to make me into them. They were trying to make me into a better me. It was pure joy to receive education from teachers who place teaching and mentoring first.”
Since receiving her PhD, she has spent about a year and a half looking for the right position and the right place to go to work. She said it was difficult to stay optimistic, but several of her mentors in the Gerontology Department and Institute continued to cheer her onward. Now Elizabeth Chen’s third act is about to begin.
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