Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Celeste Nelson, Professor of Chemical & Biological Engineering at Princeton

Dr. Celeste Nelson was born in Colorado Springs on August 21, 1976. Her interest in biology first developed when she was a teenager, but her love for the subject grew immensely when she spent time in a laboratory and realised how much she enjoyed conducting experiments. Before conducting experiments, she always believed that “molecular biology and cell biology were things that you learned, not things that you did.”

Nelson went on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and majored in both biology and chemical engineering and graduated in 1998. At MIT, she was a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest academic honor in the United States. She then went onto the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to obtain her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering under the supervision of Christopher Chen. Her thesis, published in 2003, was titled, “The regulation of endothelial cell form and function by VE-cadherin.”

Dr. Nelson then participated in and finished a postdoctoral fellowship under Mina Bissell in the Life Sciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. (LBNL) During her fellowship at LBNL, Nelson received the outstanding performance award. Dr. Nelson then joined Princeton University as an Assistant Professor in 2007. With her incredible performance, both in the laboratory and in the classroom, she received a promotion to an Associate Professor in 2012 and a full Professor 4 years later. Dr. Nelson admitted that she initially struggled with the “extra weight that comes with being in charge” as she realised that she had to be very careful in how she criticised the work of others and gave them feedback (in her words, “once you’re a professor, it actually matters!”). She currently serves as the Director of the Tissue Morphodynamic Laboratory that utilises engineering, cell biology and developmental biology in tandem.

One of Dr. Nelson’s most fascinating investigations was into how lungs formulate the elaborate, tree-esque internal anatomy vital to their function. To do so, she pioneered a laboratory technique to grow structures using simple shapes like the ones from which organs begin developing in the embryo. Nelson knew that lungs commenced as an inverted Y. By trying her experiment out with different shapes, such as a T instead of a Y, she noted that the exact shape of these earliest structures play a vital part in how the tissue’s sophisticated architecture develops. While other researchers did believe that geometry could influence the development of vital tissues, they could never experimentally prove it. However, Nelson’s methodology, derived from a procedure initially used to create computer chips, permitted her to demonstrate it, and to explain the mechanism concerned.

Dr. Nelson also worked with her Tissue Morphodynamics Laboratory to distinguish between numerous genes whose presence and functionality are vital for the correct development of branching tissue. The group is experimenting to determine how exactly such genes collaborate to mobilise the method. Dr Nelson believes that comprehending how branching regularly occurs will divulge methods of intervention in case the branching is out of control. Recent research has highlighted, for instance, that the signals that cause branching are reawakened in certain tumors. Furthermore, her techniques for building 3D tissue structures could ultimately be utilized to aid in the creation of replacement organs.

With her incredible research, it is not surprising that she has won a host of prestigious awards, such as a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface in 2007, a Packard Foundation Fellowship in 2008, a Sloan Fellowship in 2010, the MIT Technology Review TR35 (Young Innovators under 35), the Allan P. Colburn Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in 2011 and the Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award in 2012. In addition, she was a Blavatnik National Award Finalist for Young Scientists in Life Sciences in both 2017 and 2018. She also became a faculty scholar at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI in 2016. She has also won the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2016 and the Distinguished Teacher Award, Princeton School of Engineering and Applied Science, 2014. She also was a fellow at the DOD Breast Cancer Research Program after receiving her doctorate, in 2004. She is also a member of a variety of professional societies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the American Institute for Medical & Biological Engineering (AIMBE; College of Fellows), the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), the American Society for Matrix Biology (ASMB), the American Physical Society (APS), the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), the Biophysical Society (BPS), the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), the Society for Biological Engineers, (SBE) Society for Developmental Biology (SDB), and The EMT International Association (TEMTIA).

by Raina Talwar Bhatia


Department of Molecular Biology. (2020). Celeste M. Nelson. Department of Molecular Biology |.

Honor Society. (2019, December 31). PHI beta kappa rating, reviews and requirements. Is it worth it? Honor Society |® Official Website.

Nelson, C. (2020, March). Celeste M. Nelson, Ph.D. CV. CURRICULUM VITAE Celeste M. Nelson, Ph.D.. Retrieved September 17, 2020, from

Nelson, C. (2016). Cell scientist to watch — Celeste Nelson. Interview by A. Bobrowska. Journal of Cell Science.

The Trustees of Princeton University. (2020). Celeste M. Nelson | Chemical and biological engineering. Chemical and Biological Engineering.

TISSUE MORPHODYNAMICS LABORATORY. (2020). Celeste M. Nelson. The Nelson Group.

WorldCat. (2003). The regulation of endothelial cell form and function by VE-cadherin. The World’s Largest Library Catalog.



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