Chen, who had been the chief executive of two companies and a leader in higher education, came to the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2012 as a gerontology PhD student at the McCormack Graduate School. She received her degree in 2016, completing the program faster than any student in UMass Boston history.
Now Chen is about to lead the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs. Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker named Chen to succeed Alice Bonner as the next Elder Affairs secretary. She officially starts her new job June 3.
“We welcome the expertise and knowledge that Dr. Chen will bring to Elder Affairs as the new secretary and look forward to the hard work she will do to build on the progress achieved under [Bonner] that made Massachusetts an age friendly state,” Baker said.
Chen joined state government about a year after receiving her UMass Boston degree, becoming assistant commissioner of the Department of Public Health in 2017. In that job, she has been responsible for the safety and quality of health care of state residents seeking services in acute and long-term care settings.
At DPH, she has overseen the licensing of more than 300,000 health care professionals and more than 4,500 fixed or mobile care delivery settings. She has also overseen the state Determination of Need program.
Chen joins a group of several UMass Boston gerontology graduates who have gone on to run state elder affairs offices. In 2009, Ann Hartstein was named to lead the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs. James Bulot, PhD, served as director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs and later as director of Georgia Department of Human Services, Division of Aging.
Earlier in her profession career, Chen served as the chief executive of two biotechnology companies. Later she became the president of the New England College of Optometry with no higher education administration experience.
Chen began her shift toward a third career by enrolling in Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. While studying for her masters at Harvard, she became interested in end-of-life issues and decided to enroll in the UMass Boston PhD program. At that point, time was definitely an issue.
“I showed up at age 49 and said, ‘I’m not getting any younger,” Chen recalled in a 2017 Gerontology Institute blog interview. “I can’t spend six or seven years at this.’”
In less than four years, she completed her studies.
Now Chen will become responsible for the state office that promotes independence, empowerment and well-being of older Massachusetts residents – at a time when the Baker administration is emphasizing its commitment to promote healthy aging and the age-friendly movement.
“Dr. Chen is a respected leader with over 30 years of experience in the public and private sectors and will help advance Massachusetts’ leadership in providing services, protection and support to our older residents,” said Marylou Sudders, the Health and Human Services secretary who oversees EOEA.
“Massachusetts has more residents over the age of 60 than under the age of 20,” said Sudders. “We must be intentional in our efforts to support older adults and in helping them age and thrive in the places where they live and work.”