Final Words: Catherine Cheng and Biology of Aging
Your name, program, dissertation title.
Catherine Cheng, Integrated Biomedical Sciences. “Sex differences in longevity and lifespan-extending drug efficacy in genetically heterogeneous mice: Age-specific effects and gonadal contributions.”
Please tell me about yourself, why did you pick UT Health San Antonio, and your program.
I chose UT Health San Antonio because there are only a handful of institutions solely dedicated to the biology of aging, and the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies is one of them. In addition, I am very interested in the translation of research into medical products, policy and practice. UT Health San Antonio offers a various programs in the integration of medicine and science like its Translational Science Ph.D., so I was able to concurrently pursue a certificate in translational science.
Finally, the Glenn Foundation Fellowship in the Biology of Aging was the most compelling reason I came to this institution. Being selected for this award meant that I had the freedom to pursue an independent project in my time here.
What has been the highlight of graduate school so far? Have you won any awards or have there been any achievements you’ve been proud of?
One of my most memorable moments in graduate school was serving on the planning committee for the Edward J. Masoro Biology of Aging Student Day Symposium in 2017. As a part of this experience, I gained valuable experience organizing a research symposium and got to meet a researcher I greatly admire in the field, Dr. João Pedro de Magalhães, leader of the Integrative Genomics of Ageing Group at the University of Liverpool (his full talk for our research day at the Barshop Institute, “Genes Regulating Aging and the Quest for Immortality,” is below).
Please provide a few sentences summarizing your dissertation. What was the experience like for you?
The goal of my dissertation was to interrogate sex differences in longevity and response to life-extending treatment. This project addresses a couple knowledge gaps in the path towards personalized medicine by examining both the sex-specific and age-specific effects of lifespan-extending interventions. The recent development of open-source implementations of age-specific analytical tools, coupled with access to the large survival datasets from the Interventions Testing Program, allowed us to pursue this project.
Overall, I have very much enjoyed working on my dissertation project, in no small part due to my terrific mentors, Drs. James Nelson and Jonathan Gelfond. I am also grateful to our collaborator, Dr. Randy Strong. They have been a joy to work with: supportive, open-minded, and all-around great people.
Why are you passionate about your research topic? How did you first become interested in it?
I am among those who sincerely believe that there is no endeavor more humanistic than the pursuit of a cure for aging. I could write a whole book on this thesis, but many other scholars have already produced an enormous body of work in psychology and philosophy dedicated to death anxiety and the root of human evil: Søren Kierkegaard, Otto Rank, and Norman Brown, just to name a few. The basic idea, summarized by Ernst Becker in “The Denial of Death,” posits that 1) the longing to escape death arises from humanity’s singular awareness of our own existence and mortality, 2) humans attempt to obtain symbolic immortality by becoming a part of something eternal (an “immortality project”), 3) immortality projects are arbitrary (defined by the historic regional/cultural idiosyncrasies) making them naturally prone to conflict. When one immortality project conflicts with another (e.g., religion), each sect of followers is willing to put their physical selves on the line in order to preserve their eternal lives.
I was unaware, however, that there was a way to directly address the “worm at the core” of human conflict until I stumbled upon a peculiar class, by accident, in my senior year of college. That was when I was introduced to the idea of aging as a biological process. When I was a neurobiology major, a class titled “The Quest for Agelessness” caught my eye, and I enrolled in it, thinking that it might be related to aging of sensory systems. As it turned out, the class had little to do with neuroscience, and was only listed under that department due to an administrative rule. I was completely taken both by the history and the science of the biology of aging. Not only did I find the fundamental research question fascinating per se, I also liked the somewhat poetic idea of joining an endeavor (albeit with an updated, modern scientific approach) that links the quests of Gilgamesh, Nicolas Flamel, Ponce de Léon, and so many others in the long history of humankind’s attempts to understand and combat aging.
However, the rationale for biological aging research extends beyond the grand sociological scheme and well into the realm of practical, near-term benefits. From a purely pragmatic perspective, delaying aging is the most effective way to improve the quality and length of life for the greatest number of people. For all these reasons and more, I am reasonably certain that this is an area in which I would like to dedicate my life’s work.
I plan to stay at the Barshop Institute to wrap up some projects as a postdoctoral researcher in the Interventions Testing Program. I also plan to serve this summer as the Entrepreneurial Lead for a neurosurgery device company in the NSF Innovation Corps (I-CORPS), which I began working on with inventor and neurosurgeon, Dr. Alex Papanastassiou, in 2018. In the longer term, I am trying to position myself to maximize the impact I can have on bringing anti-aging therapeutics to the market and clinical practice.
Any advice for your fellow graduate students?
General advice: Not everyone struggles with imposter syndrome, but many graduate students do (including myself), so I will share a few thoughts to that end. If you’re ever feeling like you’re stuck, falling behind or not good enough, it’s a good idea to identify and question the metrics you’re using to evaluate yourself. In other words, be wary of drawing blanket conclusions like “I’m not as good as [person]” based on metrics like “I haven’t published as many papers” or “I haven’t won as many awards.” It becomes exponentially easier to conduct and communicate your research with time, so don’t fall into the trap of linear extrapolation based on your early rate of progress.
In terms of concrete advice, I think the ones that have been most useful to me in graduate school are the following:
1) Don’t be afraid to spend money to get something done.
Free resources are great, and you should take advantage of them when you can. Everyone’s personal and research budgets are subject to different constraints, of course, but in some cases you really do get what you pay for. In my case, I experienced the greatest gains in well-being and research/writing output when I paid for services from a productivity coach (I used Coach.me and a private practice therapist (instead of student counseling on campus). This rule also applies to self-learning (investing in good textbooks) or necessary software.
2) Invest time in honest introspection.
Prioritize, then ask for help or delegate if needed. Sometimes, it’s worth taking a break and taking stock of where you are versus where you want to be in a given year, month, or week. If you’re honest about what’s important to you, you can identify your personal/professional goals and prioritize your time and energy accordingly. Consider using an Eisenhower matrix to help you prioritize your tasks by importance and urgency. With this, you can eliminate the unimportant tasks entirely. Then, you can delegate/ask for help on tasks that are important but are taking too much time. Having a clear idea of what you want makes it much easier to ask for help when you need it.