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Dr. Celeste Nelson is an Associate Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering, as well as Molecular Biology at Princeton University. She is also a Member of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and the Breast Cancer Research and Cancer Metabolism and Growth Programs. Celeste received her PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Johns Hopkins University and conducted postdoctoral research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory before joining the faculty at Princeton. Celeste is the recipient of many awards and honors during her career. She has received the Princeton School of Engineering and Applied Science Distinguished Teacher Award, the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, the Allan P. Colburn Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the Technology Review TR35 Young Innovator Award, and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in Molecular Biology. She is with us today to tell us all about her journey through life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (02:39)
Celeste likes to spend her free time running and is also excited to be growing vegetables, including tomatoes and green beans, in her family’s backyard garden. She brings a scientific approach to these hobbies by tracking her running mileage and weighing all the vegetables they grow.
The Scientific Side (03:40)
In the lab, Celeste is investigating organ development and disease. She is trying to understand how the millions and billions of cells in our bodies come together to form functional organ structures, what tells them to form and maintain these structures, and how cells respond to signals that destroy organ structure in diseases like cancer.
A Dose of Motivation (04:55)
“As usual, nature’s imagination far surpasses our own […]” by Richard Feynman
What Got You Hooked on Science? (07:01)
As a kid, Celeste was more interested in painting, drawing, and writing than science. It wasn’t until college that she realized that science was something you could do for a career. Celeste had a work-study position in a lab where did basic lab tasks like cleaning glassware and sorting materials, and she liked it well enough. However, when one of the students invited her to help out with one of their experiments, her whole view of science changed. Celeste had never before considered herself to be someone who could contribute to science in a meaningful way.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (17:17)
Now as a mentor to students in her lab, Celeste experiences their failures indirectly and helps coach them through the tough times. Her lab recently had a major failure that started with an exciting result about six months ago. When they tried to repeat the experiment, they got entirely opposite results. This was devastating, but they are in the process of working through what the underlying cause might be that would explain the discrepant results.
A Shining Success! (21:01)
Celeste was delighted to work on a project examining smooth muscle function in normal lung development. This four year long project was recently completed and published in a peer-reviewed journal. The project involved many trainees, students, and postdoctoral fellows working together to test their hypotheses in various ways to make sure their results were valid. It was a major success to see this project culminate in the final publication, and the lab celebrated with ice cream.
Book Recommendations (24:07)
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, any book by Terry Pratchett
Most Treasured Travel (25:41)
One of Celeste’s favorite places to talk about science and to talk with scientists is the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. She first attended a summer course there about eight years ago and was completely blown away by what she experienced. People there are brimming with joy during their entire stay, and there is an intense passion for learning. It is also located near a beautiful beach where you can see amazing sea creatures.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (28:33)
The lab where Celeste completed her PhD had a variety of strange traditions, often steeped in superstition. Her mentor kept a totem above the door of the cell culture room that they would leave tributes for to fix failed experiments or try to ensure the success of a project. Celeste’s lab now has developed some fantastic food-centered traditions like going out for ice cream every Friday in the summer.
Advice For Us All (32:40)
Don’t be arrogant in assuming you know the answers, assuming you have all the insights to understand a problem, or believing you know how nature works. Humility is key in science. Also, believe in yourself. This is important for realizing that you can do something and that you can be the person you want to be.
Research in Celeste’s lab seeks to answer the following fundamental questions: How are the final architectures of tissues and organs determined? Specifically, how do individual cells (the building blocks of these materials) integrate complex biological signals (both biochemical and mechanical) dynamically and spatially within tissues to direct the development of organs? The answers to these questions have broad ramifications, from understanding the fundamental mechanisms of development, to delineating the developmental control processes that are circumvented by cancer and other diseases, to elucidating new paradigms required for successful therapeutic approaches in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. Because of the complexity of the interacting pathways and three-dimensional (3D) nature of developing tissues, this problem requires an interdisciplinary approach, combining expertise from the cell biology, developmental biology, and engineering communities. Celeste’s group works at the interface of these disciplines, developing tools to engineer organotypic culture models that mimic tissue development, enabling rigorous quantitative analysis and computational predictions of the dynamics of morphogenesis. Our current focus is on understanding the branching morphogenesis process that builds the mammary gland and vertebrate lung.