COVID Uncertainties and New Paths

Date: June 3, 2022 By: Emily Makowski

Research technician Agnes Cheng started a new job during the pandemic—and experienced her Asian identity in a different way amid a troubling rise in violence

Graduating from college can be an uncertain and confusing time in any circumstances, but it was especially the case for Agnes Cheng, a research technician in Aaron Schmidt’s lab who finished her schooling in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cheng, who received a bachelor’s degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology from Brown University in 2020, focused on plant biology as an undergraduate but decided to pivot during the pandemic to research that was more related to human health. She saw many of her friends working in areas that have a direct impact on health—some studied medicine, some were nurses, some worked as contact tracers—and as the pandemic unfolded, she wanted to go into a role where she could work to help others.

Cheng “immediately clicked” with PI Aaron Schmidt when she interviewed for a research technician job opening at the Ragon and felt extremely welcomed by Schmidt and other lab members upon joining the team in July 2020. It “gave me the confidence and also the interest to be working here, even if the science wasn’t particularly what I had studied,” she says.

Over the nearly two years that she’s been at the Ragon, Cheng has mainly been working on projects related to influenza with postdoctoral researcher Dana Thornlow. She’s studied the creation of next-generation immunogens, which are modified proteins that elicit desired immune responses and could lead to the development of an improved flu vaccine. She’s also helped fulfill requests from collaborators in labs worldwide by making antibodies or antigens such as the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has been used in vaccine development research.

Starting a new job during the pandemic was “both really bonding and really isolating at the same time,” Cheng says. During the height of COVID, many employees worked together in shifts, so Cheng became very close with certain coworkers—but for a long time, she didn’t even know what they looked like without masks.

The pandemic added an additional layer of anxiety for Cheng, who is Asian American. After the first COVID-19 cases were reported from China, violence against Asians started to increase and continues to rise. Anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. increased by 339 percent in 2021 from the previous year, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“It is very interesting to be coming online as an adult during not only a global pandemic, but also a time where there’s just been very, very public violence against Asian American people—not that it hasn’t been happening before, because it certainly has been,” Cheng says.

Cheng’s father is originally from the Philippines, and her mother grew up in South Korea and Guam. Cheng, who was born in the U.S. and raised in the suburbs of northern Virginia, recognizes that she’s had certain privileges throughout her life. “My parents were college educated, I’m an American citizen, I grew up speaking English. There are a lot of things that allow me for better or for worse to pass in a lot of privileged white spaces,” she says, adding that the common view of Asian Americans as a model minority “loses a lot of the struggle and hardship and oppression that’s occurring.”

COVID cancelled Cheng’s initial post-college plans to travel to Asia; she had wanted to spend Summer 2020 with her grandparents in the Philippines and meet up with extended family in Korea and in Guam. The uncertainty of being separated from family and not knowing when she’ll see them again is an experience shared by many individuals in transnational families—both during and before the pandemic. It’s one of the reasons Cheng places such importance on finding chosen community. She has had a positive experience at the Ragon and describes her coworkers as “friendly and warm immediately.” She adds that she found a good mentor in Schmidt and was able to look up to many of her labmates, who quickly accepted her into the lab and took the time to train her on the science so that she was able to thrive.

After a successful time at the Ragon, Cheng will soon be pivoting again to a new role as a technical researcher at an environmental nonprofit that helps companies reduce and replace toxic chemicals in their manufacturing processes. In this role, she’ll be able to combine her interest in the environment from her college studies with her increased focus on human health—making the world a better place with the aid of the knowledge she’s gained.

This article is based on an interview conducted during AAPI Heritage Month in May. Visit the Library of Congress site for more AAPI Heritage Month resources.

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COVID Uncertainties and New Paths

Research technician Agnes Cheng started a new job during the pandemic—and experienced her Asian identity in a different way amid a troubling rise in violence