A Q&A with Dr. Julius Chen: FtF Policy Advisor, Columbia Professor, and Health Economist
We sat down for an exclusive Q&A about Dr. Chen’s research interests, professional experiences, and advice for college students
You might have seen Dr. Julius Chen, our health care policy advisor, on your campus for a Medicare presentation, but what does he do when he’s not on the road? We had the pleasure of speaking with him to learn more about his life and his work in health care. Here’s what we learned:
Q: What led you to pursue your career in health policy?
I’ve always had an interest in health care. My dad is a family practice physician, so growing up I was always listening to discussions surrounding the medical field. For me, it was trying to decide between two routes: working in academia versus going to medical school. I actually finished all of the pre-med curriculum in college and was very much planning to go to med school.
Q: What is one of your favorite childhood memories?
So, I grew up in the Los Angeles area. I always remember swimming with my family and playing table tennis in the backyard, then making dinner together. I loved the smells of dinner and the sunlight coming through the kitchen window.
Q: Why did you decide to pursue your PhD?
I had always enjoyed learning about the kind of role that academic research plays in policymaking and also teaching, so that kind of influenced me to pursue my PhD. I also really enjoyed molding my interest in economics together with health care and public policy.
Q: Which aspects of being a professor do you enjoy the most?
One of the most rewarding things about being a professor is working with students. I had always enjoyed that when I was a graduate student teaching courses, but being a full-time professor is a different feeling. I’ve found that many students don’t know about health insurance, the way that health care is delivered in the US, or how Medicare and Medicaid work, so I enjoy that interaction with students—whether it’s in class, when they come to me with questions, or providing feedback on their research ideas.
Q: What are some of your research projects that you found most interesting?
In graduate school, I had this unique opportunity to work with a large tech firm studying some of the initiatives they were rolling out to innovate and improve the access and quality of health care for their workers. This sparked my interest in the space of “what employers are doing,” because for Americans under the age of 65, the vast majority get their health insurance coverage through their employer.
Q: What advice do you have for students who are interested in going into research?
If you are thinking about a PhD, the thing to understand is that you need to be passionate and dedicated to a particular field of research. At the end of the day, you’re going to be evaluated on your research productivity and your performance, so it’s important to find a specific area that you are interested in mastering and can continue to develop new research and knowledge in.
What I’m seeing more of now—and what I think is helpful—is for people to work for a little bit as a research assistant or to do some type of research-oriented master’s degree before going into a PhD program.
Q: What drew you to work with Free the Facts?
I learned about Free the Facts through my brother, Dr. Lanhee Chen, who’s the Chairman of the Policy Advisory Board. He called me one night and was like, “Hey, so you know I’m involved with this organization that does outreach to college campuses and teaches students about public policy issues, and we could really use your help with Medicare. Would you be interested?” And I was like, “Yes!”
The mission of Free the Facts definitely aligns with my interest in working with students.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not working with FtF, researching, or teaching?
About a year and a half ago, I started getting into running, and it’s been a nice way to de-stress and relax. When I’m able to run and I can see a lake, mountains, trees, or a river, it really helps my spirit. I haven’t found many trails in the New York area, but I recently moved to New Jersey and have found that if you drive north about 20 minutes, there are lots of wooded trails that are really nice.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduate students?
Be open-minded to different fields and activities because you never know if something will catch your attention. In undergrad, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in terms of extracurriculars, but I joined Model UN. I met some great friends there and it’s something that I ended up doing for four years. Also, in my last year, I tutored low-income students in Oakland’s Chinatown district, which was an incredible experience where I got to work with children of immigrants and help them navigate language barriers. That was something I only learned about my senior year, but wish I had gotten involved with earlier on.