Sitting outside Tresidder Memorial Union one recent morning, Michael Chen couldn’t help but notice the students bicycling past the building who weren’t wearing helmets.

Michael Zhu Chen

Stanford senior Micheal Zhu Chen plans to pursue master’s degrees in statistics and public policy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“People put cases on their phones, but they don’t put them on their heads – even though the main reason they’re here at Stanford is to get an education that will enrich their minds,” said Chen, a Stanford senior and co-president of Stanford Synapse, which is dedicated to providing social support to people with brain injuries.

It’s a situation that Synapse, which Chen co-founded as a freshman with two Stanford medical students, hopes to address at the “I Love My Stanford Brain” conference next February.

“We’re hoping to raise awareness and stimulate discussion among students about brain injury and helmet use,” said Chen, who traces his interest in traumatic brain injuries to the day his 5-year-old brother sustained a brain injury after colliding with another child during a game of tag on the playground.

It was an interest that was reawakened several years later at Stanford, when Chen witnessed a bike accident in which a student landed head first on the pavement.

Chen, who was recently named a 2018 Rhodes Scholar, hopes to establish a chapter of Synapse at the University of Oxford in England, where he will begin his graduate studies in October. It would be the first overseas chapter of Synapse, which has established chapters at seven universities in the United States, including the University of Washington, the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Heading to Oxford in the fall

Chen is one of five individuals with Stanford affiliations, including four students and one alumnus, who were recently awarded Rhodes Scholarships, which provide all expenses for two or three years of graduate study – and in some cases, four years – at Oxford.

Chen learned he had won the scholarship just before Thanksgiving, following an interview with a selection committee in Salt Lake City. He immediately called his mother.

“I felt that she had to know first, because she has been so supportive of me across all of my academic and extracurricular pursuits,” he said.

Chen said he owed a great debt to the Stanford mentors who had gone the extra mile to support him, even when life may have been pulling them in other directions.

“I am also grateful to have had the opportunity to study at Stanford, a one-of-a-kind university where I have made friends and memories that will last a lifetime,” he said. “Finally, I am deeply thankful for the friends and family that have supported me in everything that I do. This award is a testament to their friendship and love.”

As a Rhodes Scholar, Chen hopes to pursue master’s degrees in statistics and public policy. After Oxford, he plans to complete a combined MD/PhD in the United States to pursue his dream of becoming a physician-scientist.

Passion for lab research

Chen, who grew up in Boulder, Colorado, started conducting research in a chemical engineering laboratory in high school and was eager to continue lab work at Stanford.

During his first quarter on campus, he reached out to Karl Deisseroth, a prominent Stanford neuroscientist and psychiatrist whose work on optogenetics had captured Chen’s interest when he heard a lecture about the technique at a high school science fair. During finals week, student and professor met for a chat, and on the first day of winter quarter, Chen joined Deisseroth’s lab, which was collaborating on research projects with another Stanford neuroscientist, Liqun Luo, a professor of biology.

“I joined their laboratories to study the inner workings of motivation and reward,” said Chen, noting that the research dovetails with his long-term interest in becoming a physician-scientist focused on improving the lives of people with neurological disorders.

“Just like one cannot possibly repair a broken engine without knowing how a piston works, one cannot hope to effectively treat an injured brain without understanding the basic mechanisms that govern its function,” said Chen, who has gotten to know people living with the long-term symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI) through Stanford Synapse.

“Motivation and reward are two aspects of neurological function that are especially relevant for TBI patients, who may experience severe deficits in motivation and pleasure that can cause long-term depression,” Chen said. “Understanding how these systems work on a fundamental level will pave the way for the development of new treatments for depression and other mental disorders that afflict TBI patients.”

Exploring thirst behavior

Over the last three years, Chen has been studying the thirst system in mice. It is a topic he is also exploring in his honors thesis, The Neuronal Basis of Thirst Motivational Drive.

“Thirst is a powerful innate drive that motivates animals to engage in behaviors to obtain water,” he said.

“By understanding thirst, we can start to piece together more broadly how motivational systems in the brain function, such as how patients with obesity and drug addiction suffer from an excess of motivation – to either eat food or seek drugs – and how people with depression suffer from a deficit of motivation. By understanding the building blocks and the cross-talk between different brain areas that comprise the motivational circuits of the brain, we can begin to piece together how things can go wrong.”

As co-first author of the project, Chen designed innovative experiments to probe the connectivity and function of the thirst circuitry in mice.

“My colleagues and I discovered that a population of neurons in the hypothalamus serves as a thermostat for thirst, integrating input from osmolarity-sensing cells and broadcasting motivational signals that drive water-seeking behavior during dehydration,” Chen said. “Our results – Thirst-Associated Preoptic Neurons Encode an Aversive Motivational Drive – were published in September 2017 in the journal Science.”

Tutoring, swimming, dancing

During his freshman year at Stanford, Chen began tutoring middle-school students through DreamCatchers, a nonprofit organization that provides one-on-one tutoring for low-income youth.

After seeing the effectiveness of one-on-one tutoring at DreamCatchers, Chen worked with other students to create a similar “buddy program” for Synapse, pairing TBI patients with students. He said it was a wonderful opportunity for patients to share their stories, and for students to learn about living with a brain injury from a patient’s perspective.

“One of our patients told me that participating in the buddy program made him feel human again,” Chen said.

In addition to his other pursuits, Chen is a member of Stanford Club Swimming and of Kayumanggi (Kayu), a Filipino arts organization. Each year, Kayu presents an annual show, weaving dance, music, a capella and spoken word performances into a dramatic skit that explores aspects of the Filipino-American experience and identity.  Over the years, Chen has performed a variety of dances in the show, including Maglalatik – an indigenous dance that uses coconut shells for costumes and props.

Chen, who is Chinese-American, heard about Kayu during Admit Weekend from his room host, the organization’s co-chair, who encouraged Chen to join and followed up by sending him a membership form.

“Dancing wasn’t really my thing, but eventually I said, ‘why not,’” Chen recalled with a laugh. “I’m so glad I did because there’s no other way I could have found such a fun and supportive community.”