GMS Student Spotlight: Kelly Chen (MAMS ’24)

Kelly Chen is a second-year master’s student in the Graduate Medical Sciences MS in Medical Sciences (MAMS) program. She is currently completing her MAMS thesis at the Division of Digital Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, under the direction of John Torous, MD, MBI. Chen works with the division’s Digital Clinic, a program offering one-on-one, short-term cognitive behavioral therapy with a clinician that is augmented with a smartphone app. She is also involved with the Student Wellness Committee at GMS. Learn more about Chen below! To learn more about the Digital Clinic, click here.

Tell me about your journey to Boston.

I am from California. I had visited [Boston] one time, but only very briefly when I was a senior in high school. Obviously, it has been a very long time since then, but what brought me to Boston is the MAMS Program. That, plus, I always wanted to come back to Boston. The opportunities aligned themselves very nicely, because MAMS is one of the best [Special Master’s Programs] you can get into, which is a great way to prepare for medical school.

I’ll be completely honest, coming out of undergrad is very difficult. I was faced with many barriers and was confronted by own my study habits. They were inefficient and just overall weren’t the best. I feel like at every stage of my life, these academic advisors and mentors were always telling me, “At this stage in your life, you’ll be confronted with your bad study habits.” This program is where that finally hit me, especially coming out of the pandemic – transitioning to online learning for two years and then learning to transition back to in person learning was especially difficult because it required different methods of studying.

Do you feel you’ve grown through the MAMS program and the challenges you’re discussing? Do you feel like you’ve overcome them?

Oh yes, definitely. At first, I didn’t even realize I was growing. I have a peer mentor; she’s amazing. She watched me grow throughout my MAMS journey. We met up for coffee maybe even just two, three months into the program, and she was able to tell me, “Oh, you’ve actually grown so much.” She’s like, “Not to say that you were immature when I met you, but you’ve definitely matured now.”

I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that most of my life before MAMS, and even when I got to MAMS, a lot of it was me trying to rush through everything. So, the very first time I considered slowing things down was applying for MAMS instead of applying to medical school directly, which I think was largely beneficial for insight into how I need to study and how difficult courses can get. Not that the material is difficult – it’s very doable – but it requires a lot of hard work, which I think everyone can do.

Also, I decided to not apply to medical school this year, but I will be applying in the upcoming cycle again to further allow myself more time to take the MCAT, to really focus on my thesis work, and then have time for those applications and not to do all of them together with my thesis work.

Where did you complete your undergraduate degree?

I went to the University of California Riverside. It’s in Southern California. I studied biology, so [I have] a BS in Biology, and I have a minor in applied statistics.

Can you tell me about your thesis work within MAMS?

I wear a lot of different hats at work or in my thesis, but mainly I’m the clinical care coordinator at my lab. We run a digital clinic, and it’s a hybrid care model. We have clinicians who offer the therapy, so that’s the more traditional part. We also have a role called the digital navigator. Their role in this is to support the smartphone app.

We use a smartphone app to augment therapy. This app includes tools for managing care. So, this includes mindfulness modules, if you’ve heard of the Headspace app, it’s very similar. There’s also a free writing portion for people who enjoy free writing and journaling. Within this app, we also have a tab called Assess, and it’s how we can help record progress or the growth of our patients; but also, it’s a good way for us to know [if it’s working]. The care we’re providing, is it working for this patient?

So, our care is a little bit personalized because the app itself does collect what we call passive data, meaning steps, GPS and home time, which is actually calculated based on where you spend the most amount of time and is ultimately used to provide patients with insights. What I’ve found is it works for a lot of patients that prefer to see their therapist online, because they’re just so busy, it’s hard for them to commute to an office; this way they can schedule it into their day and just jump into the zoom call.

Our digital navigators help our patients set up the app. So, downloading the app, introducing them to the surveys, and we have a couple of weekly surveys and a daily survey. The daily survey is about 30 seconds long. I usually recommend my patients just take it when they’re brushing their teeth. Usually, [it’s] easy to remember the weekly surveys, just like the day or two before I see them. We also print out a data report weekly for them, and this comes from the data. We gather the passive and active data together, so, the responses they have put into the app and as well as the data we’ve collected through the smartphone.

What are some of the insights and outcomes you see from the app?

So, it’s pretty cool actually. Sometimes we see insights like, “Oh, we see that on days you report to have low anxiety, you also have higher screen time.” Something like that, for example. From a clinical standpoint, maybe this is avoidance on days where you’re experiencing X, Y, Z, you go to your phone as a method of avoidance and as a result you feel less anxious, whatever it may be. Now as a digital navigator, it is not their duty to diagnose, but to ask the patients like, “Hey, this is what we’re noticing in your data, what do you make of it?” And then we note it down for our clinicians, who then will be able to talk more about it to them. Of course, our clinicians have more insight in their personal lives, so they use that data as well to be like, “Oh, hey, I actually see that in your data, these correlations, or on this day we saw this happen. Do you want to talk about it?”

I don’t know if you experienced, when you go to doctors or the therapist and you arrive, you’re like, “Actually, I don’t remember what I wanted to tell them.” I feel like it happens to all of us. And you’re like, “Oh, wait, all of a sudden, I’m better, but I know I’m not better. I just don’t remember what I wanted to tell you.” Things like that. So, it’s actually, really, really helpful, useful, and really cool.

Does every patient who enrolls on the platform meet with a clinician, or is it only if they are referred by a digital navigator?

They meet with both weekly. Patients get a weekly 45-minute therapy session in our short-term care model. Unfortunately, we can’t take highly acute patients because we are virtual. Due to the nature of that, it would be very difficult to help in an emergency. It’s not that we wouldn’t love to provide care to everyone in need, of course we would love to, but they need more help than we can provide, and it would be unethical and irresponsible on our part to even try to do so.

We take many patients who are waiting months out for therapy. There are a lot of psychiatry or psychology departments that have these super long wait lists and take months to get back to you. We’re here to bridge that a little bit, so that someone can get eight weeks of care, which is about two months, hopefully until they see someone. During therapy, we are teaching them tools, and patients can continue to use the app afterwards.

Many of our patients love the app and the tools on there and continue to practice a lot of these tools that our clinicians have taught them. We use something called the Unified Protocol, which was adapted and rewritten in our lab by one of our clinicians. So, there is a structured, but not in a way where you feel like you’re not coming in to solve your own issues if that makes sense. You’re coming in and you’re like, “Hey, I want to tackle X, Y, Z,” but it’s in a structured format.

Why did you decide to work with this lab? What drew you to this lab?

The main reason why I was driven to work here was because there was a student panel during one of my MAMS classes in the spring semester, and there was a girl who was from MAMS working here before me. I’m now in her position. I was introduced to her through my peer mentor. She had briefly mentioned her to me. This was before I had really solidified where I wanted to work, and I did want to do something a little bit more clinical. In undergrad, I worked in a wound healing research lab. So, mostly benchtop research, but the larger goal was [studying] diabetic foot ulcers. I thought it was really cool that she worked with digital mental health. It was something new to me, plus I think it’s quite innovative.

And then after meeting my PI, Dr. John Torous, I was sold. He’s amazing. As a mentor, he really goes above and beyond for his mentees. This was one of my priorities when looking for a mentor for my thesis, because in this one year, I want to build some really good connections. I want someone who I feel will look out for me in a way. Obviously, he’s super busy, but in terms of my career, he really pushed me to do more and to achieve my goals.

I just really love our lab culture, and I think that part of that is due to him. And of course, the work we’re doing, I think is also very rewarding. I wish all the time that we had long-term care options because I just love seeing some of my patients so much. They grow so much in their therapy, and I think it’s really amazing. Even some of the people who don’t love the app at the beginning, by the very end of it, they’re like, “Oh, can I continue to use the app?” Of course, I’m not holding official digital literacy classes, but I feel like I’m empowering people, enabling them to do more for themselves, and giving them a mini personal data lesson which feels really good.

Why do you think it’s so important that people have access to these resources?

Well, for many different reasons. Starting with our students; these are people who are going to all different sorts of positions of our future doctors, nurses, our mental health counselors, oral health sciences, public health advisors, all the above. We want the people who hold these titles to feel be able to successfully manage their own issues, because they’re going to be advising other people on their issues. Unfortunately, healthcare professionals have some of the highest burnout rates statistically.

Of course, I can’t solve that by myself, and I can’t solve that tomorrow. But being aware of our own mental health situation and how to manage it could hopefully help in the future and maybe can have a little bit of a ripple effect. As a first generation Asian American, I know that in Asian countries, there is a very large mental health stigma and it’s not talked about enough. I just hope that in the future, when people need help they can recognize it and seek it out, because those resources were available or accessible to them previously. In the larger cities of America, the situation as a whole is definitely better now than it was before, there is definitely more attention being brought to these issues and more people are seeking help and therapy everyday so it’s important that existing resources are made known to those who are looking for it.

What are your longer-term goals in your field?

I do hope to become a physician one day. I don’t know where exactly that will take me. I hope to one day end up in California, and that doesn’t have to be for medical school, and it doesn’t have to be for residency. It doesn’t have to be anytime soon. But ultimately, that is where I hope to spend the rest of my days, as people call it.

I think Boston is great, and I’ve been really enjoying it for the transition phase of my life. I myself just love exploring new cities. So, I will have another gap year this coming year, and I’m still a little undecided on where I want to be. Even though I grew up in California and went to undergrad in California, I was 400 miles away from home. I really do love exploring and traveling to new places and really, I don’t know if two years here really makes me a Bostonian, but I feel a little connected. I haven’t shoveled any snow, but I’ve left a few footprints.

I would like to practice as a physician, but I still want to do a lot of things I do now in terms of supporting my peers, and hopefully supporting patients as a doctor one day, and just not only advocating for the patients, but also for my peers to solve some of the issues that we may have. I would also like in the future to become a resource for other people who are trying to achieve the same things that I hopefully have achieved by then, just as a way to give back to my own community as many others have done for me. My favorite thing about my community are the alums and people coming before me who genuinely want to offer their help if you reach out.

In what ways do you incorporate wellness into your routine?

Yeah, it’s definitely a lot. Well, one, I make sure to stay on top of any doctor’s appointments. I, I feel like physical wellness really affects mental health and wellbeing, because physical ailments can lead to more stress. No matter how big, try to take care of it as much as you can, so it doesn’t get worse, then you’ll have more to stress about later. So that’s number one.

Number two is I personally love playing games. I have friends on the West Coast, and it’s a good way for myself to spend some time with them, even though we’re three-hour time zone apart. We play games. It’s just a one day a week thing, and we’ll play games usually for two, three hours usually. And I have a lot more time now that I don’t have classes, and it’s just my nine to five. And then here and there I’m doing Student Wellness Committee work.

I’m learning a new skill, which is that I have to code for my thesis work. While I’m very excited to learn a new skill, learning new skills, it’s often also very difficult. It requires practice. So, I try to do that in my free time as well, just a little bit here and there. Coding is also one of those, if you don’t use it, you lose it. I also enjoy painting, so sometimes I’ll just put on a video and I’ll just paint. It is going to start getting a little colder out, so I probably won’t be painting outside as much.

Planning events with friends is always great. And my coworkers are amazing. Like I said earlier, our lab culture is great. We all went out on a Friday to go do trivia, so I highly recommend just gathering some friends once a week and just going out. I’m also in a book club with just some friends. We meet once a month, we read, and it’s nice downtime to be able to read and then discuss with friends afterwards.