Meet Kyra Chen

Chen collected a Student Athlete Academic Achievement Award, along with basketball player Natalie Bruns and soccer player Samantha Rathe


When it comes to water, NYU Tandon has no shortage of experts, from Institute Associate Professor Andrea Silverman, whose research is centered on water quality, wastewater treatment, and urban flooding, to Professor André Taylor, who recently made a major breakthrough with an emerging electrochemical technique that can turn seawater into potable drinking water, while also storing affordable renewable energy. When the editors of  Popular Science honored Institute Professor Maurizio Porfiri as one of the 10 most brilliant researchers in the country for his contributions to biomimetic underwater robotics, they even referred to him as the “Water Wizard.”

Now, however, there’s another “water wizard” in Brooklyn: Kyra Chen, a member of the NYU Violets swim team, a mechanical engineering major from the Class of 2024, and an aspiring orthopedic surgeon. 

If it seems as though mechanical engineering is an odd choice of major for someone with an eye on medical school, Chen explains that there is plenty of overlap. The movement of joints and muscle is governed by mechanical principles, after all, so her studies have provided a solid foundation, and she intends to apply to med school a year from now. 

In the interim, she will be conducting research at NYU Langone. That new job will allow her to remain within NYU’s medical ecosystem: last year, after winning a Thompson-Bartlett Summer Research Fellowship, she had worked with Thorsten Kirsch — a professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery and Department of Cell Biology — to study the role of the pericellular matrix in post-surgical joint inflammation. (That matrix is a narrow region of tissue that surrounds the chondrocytes in articular cartilage, specialized connective tissue that provides needed lubrication to joints.) 

Chen — who has also collaborated with members of the Department of Neurological Surgery to research the history of leprosy treatment and was lead author on a 2022 paper on the topic for the Journal of Medical Biography — has distinguished herself as an athlete, as well as a scholar. A member of the swim team at the Derryfield School, in Manchester, New Hampshire, she knew she wanted to earn her bachelor’s degree at a place that would allow her to continue swimming while also focusing on her STEM interests. Realizing that NYU Tandon fit that description perfectly, she reached out to the Violets’ coaches, who invited her to come to Brooklyn to meet the team and spend the day shadowing one of its members. The visit confirmed her impression that the fit would be a good one, and her subsequent application was successful. (Because NYU is a Division III school, student-athletes must first gain admission based solely on their academic prowess.) 

Over the course of her college career, she has proven herself a versatile team-player. Although she initially swam in 50- and 100-yard events, which require short but intense bursts of energy, she was later pressed into service to compete in the 1650-yard race (often referred to by swimmers as “the mile”), a feat that calls for strength and endurance — and adapting from a 25-second race to one lasting 17 minutes.

And if it appears surprising for a mechanical engineering student to be headed to medical school, Chen confounds expectations in other ways as well. In the popular imagination, swimmers are serious, solitary people, alone in their lanes and intent on winning individual glory. That couldn’t be further from the truth, Chen asserts. “The Violets are like a family,” she says. “We all motivate each other in the pool because we want each other to succeed.. Among my fondest memories at Tandon are the times we’ve all gone down to train in Florida. It’s intense, because we practice twice a day for a week straight, but still fun.”

In past semesters, Chen has been honored as a College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) Scholar All-American, an Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar, and a University Athletic Association (UAA) Winter Sport All-Academic. 

Winning a Student Athlete Academic Achievement Award, which is bestowed upon academically distinguished seniors by NYU’s Intercollegiate Athletics Advisory Committee, during the final semester of her college career has special resonance. “With women entering engineering programs in increasing numbers, I think it's great that the other two athletes being honored, Natalie Bruns and Samantha Rathe, are also women,” she says. “It shows barriers being broken in a traditionally male-dominated field."