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Walter Chen

Boston Children's Hospital / Boston Medical Center

It might be the best-known tagline of middle school science: the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.

But just how much researchers could learn about mitochondria has long been limited, because they didn’t have a great way to isolate mitochondria from cells to study them. Then came Walter Chen. During his Ph.D. studies at MIT, Chen helped develop a new method for isolating mitochondria and other organelles. It enables researchers to peer inside the organelles so they can learn more about their functions and how they work.

“You essentially just fish it out of the big mix of cellular soup,” Chen said.

Chen, now a postdoc at Harvard Medical School, is working to further develop the technology so scientists can get a glimpse at the proteins within organelles. He’s also a resident in pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center, with plans to specialize in neonatology.

“My dream and what I’ve been working toward is to do both — I definitely want to become a physician-scientist,” he said.

Outside the lab and the hospital, Chen occasionally performs comedy — a hobby that he sees as overlapping with being a physician and conducting research. Those fields involve a certain creativity, and, he said, “laughter in its own right is a medicine.”

— Andrew Joseph