Chelsea Stephens, Ph.D. Student

Chelsea Stephens

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
BME research/concentration area: Tissue Engineering & Biomaterials/ Microvascular
Lab affiliation: Butcher Lab

Why Cornell?
I chose to attend Cornell because of the summer immersion term offered through the BME Ph.D. curriculum. This 7-week internship allows first year BME PhD students to conduct clinically relevant research, shadow physicians, attend medical grand rounds, and more at prestigious NYC hospitals, such as NY Presbyterian, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Hospital for Special Surgery. Before applying to graduate school, I knew I also wanted to study medicine in order to be a physician scientist. Thus, my choice in selecting a home for graduate school was highly dependent on the healthcare opportunities and connections that would help prepare me for medical school.  In addition to the plethora of resources at Cornell, the BME students, faculty, and staff were just so friendly, relaxed, approachable, social, kind, and supportive, just to name a few. During my recruitment visit to Cornell, I was so shocked to learn that the school I believed to be competitive, serious, and humdrum was actually the antithesis of that. I was so pleased with my recruitment visit that I was pretty much sold after, and I have yet to be disappointed.

Why biomedical engineering? 
My interest in biomedical engineering began in college. I wanted to attend medical school, but felt the traditional pre-med majors were not interdisciplinary enough. In order to receive a well-rounded education on how the body functions, I wanted to explore outside the realm of biology or chemistry. Biomedical engineering – the application of engineering principles to physiology and medicine – provided me with a unique set of skills in problem solving and critical thinking. As a biomedical engineer, I have learned how to identify niche-specific problems in healthcare and develop solutions to improve the lives of many.

Tell us about your research.
I have the pleasure of being mentored by Dr. Jonathan Butcher as my primary advisor, and my committee members Dr. Daniel Berry, Dr. Jason Spector, Dr. Claudia Fischbach, and Dr. Ankur Singh. The goal of my research is to examine the role of hemodynamics, or blood flow, on microvessel formation to fabricate thick, vascularized tissues. The need for bioengineered, voluminous tissues with preexisting vasculature is critical as the demand for organ transplants, tissue reconstruction, and chronic wound repair rises. Thus, my research in Dr. Butcher’s lab will not only advance the field of cardiovascular tissue engineering, but also the field of regenerative medicine.

What’s the most rewarding part of your Ph.D. experience so far?
That would have to be the friendships that I’ve acquired and the network that I’ve established. It has been a true honor to meet so many like-minded people, students and faculty, who are motivated by advancing STEM, supporting innovation, and improving society.

 . . . . Your greatest challenge?
Probably controlling my urges to jump right into an interesting new idea when I have yet to complete the current project I am working on. In research, we are always discovering new concepts within the literature, and sometimes I think of even “bigger” and “better” topics to investigate. My excitement in the exploration of these prospective areas can be quite distracting, preventing me from staying focus on my main obligations at hand.

Favorite class or experience at Cornell BME so far?
My favorite class so far has been Natural Engineering (BME6501), where we study the biophysical mechanisms of embryonic tissue development and maturation through a system engineering approach. Although challenging at times, I really enjoyed how this course pushed me past my limits – limits that I didn’t know existed – grooming me to be a creative and curious scientist. With expertise in biology and engineering, we can truly understand and master the biological phenomena necessary to synthesize pharmacological therapeutics, design implants and prosthetics, regenerate functional tissues, and more.

Any advice for students considering research in BME?
My advice to prospective and first-year graduate students would be that you can establish your own project if you really want to. Your research advisor is there to give you the bare bones of what you are BOTH interested in. Do not be afraid to challenge your advisors and push the initial project goals in a new and creative direction, if warranted. You are smart enough to propose your own ideas and carve your own path. Although some faculty are easier than others, if you believe in and fight for your idea, you can make it happen.

What do you do for fun/extracurricular?
I spend the bulk of my free time volunteering at Cornell or within the Ithaca community primarily through educational programs. At Cornell, I mentor prospective and undergraduate students in engineering through Diversity Programs in Engineering (DPE). As the DPE High School Programs Coordinator, I help organize engineering programs geared toward increasing the exposure of STEM education and professions to underrepresented minorities. Additionally, I educate middle and high school students within the Tompkins County School District in sociology, science, and math through programs such as Village at Ithaca, Splash!, NY State 4-H Career Explorations, and GRASSHOPR. Please believe me when I say that all of this is fun for me. Helping others, especially children, gives me such joy. However, if I’m not doing that, then I’m probably at a local bar, with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, working on one of my many side entrepreneurial endeavors.

How has the Cornell faculty impacted your time at Cornell?
The faculty within and outside the BME department have always been super helpful and supportive of me and my enterprises. Within the BME department, faculty usually find time to meet with students to provide mentorship on career opportunities, collaborate on mutually-beneficial research projects, and support the growth and development of new, innovative ideas. I have also had the privilege to interact with some business school professors and advisors within S.C. Johnson for guidance and encouragement on my entrepreneurial endeavors. My professional connections with Cornell faculty and staff have exposed the many resources I have at my fingertips and demonstrated the unconditional support of my journey at Cornell. All these experiences and interactions with Cornell faculty and staff have  helped accelerate my evolution and maturation as a student, a professional, and a person, and I am deeply thankful for that.

What have you learned about yourself here?
At Cornell, I learned that I’m a true empath and altruist; two personality traits that I knew I had but was not really aware of the magnitude at which I had these characteristics. I struggled a great deal with my mixed feelings on the amount of time I should and should not spend helping others. There were so many moments of internal conflict because my heart is saying “help them” and “they need you”, while others may respectfully say “help yourself first” and “you can’t give from an empty cup” – which by the way I have a strong disdain for that saying. I was made to feel that allocating my time to helping others, while I don’t have all my “ducks in a row”, may impede me from achieving my goals and true potential. I understood their concerns, but I remained conflicted because it did not feel right to be complicit. However, this changed in the Summer of 2018 when I participated in the Colman Leadership program at Cornell – a four-day intensive workshop that teaches graduate students about leadership style and development. This program validated my discomfort with the status quo and taught me that I am actually rejuvenated, rather than impeded, when I help others, even if it means putting my projects, assignment, or personal goals on hold. This validation of being a true altruist and empath has brought me a great deal of peace and sanity because the people in need truly motivate me – the homeless who may need an extra blanket during the winter, the bartender who needs someone to vent to, the parents who need extra tutoring for their children but cannot afford it, and the K-12 students who deserve a rich and quality education. Those people matter and galvanize me to do and be better, so that I can attain a position of power to make drastic changes for the everyday person. All that to say, I can have $5 dollars in my pocket, or $5 billion dollars; my cup is always overflowing, and I need to share.

Any recommendations for what to do outside of Cornell?
My favorite thing to do in Ithaca would probably be going to local bars (The Watershed, Monks on the Commons, or The Regent Lounge) to do work over a glass of wine in the evenings. Although I’m being productive, I occasionally get interrupted by the bartenders or other patrons because of their curiosity. The opportunity to interact with others who are unaffiliated or indirectly affiliated with Cornell has been rewarding to say the least. I get to learn so much about the everyday experience of the local residents who work as our restaurant servers, grocery store clerks, and schoolteachers. I’m also able to network with individuals who come to Ithaca for business, parents who are visiting their children, or Alumni who are just feeling nostalgic. I enjoy meeting a diversity of people because (1) It’s fun; (2) I’m an extroverted empath; and (3) there are always nuggets of wisdom and connections I seem to acquire during these exchanges, which is pretty awesome.

What stands out to you most about your Cornell experience so far?
The social and professional network that I have acquired stands out to me the most. I have had the privilege not only to work with engineering students outside my BME discipline, but also law students and business students. By exploring outside the BME department, I have expanded my social capital, gained knowledge on entrepreneurship, and established partnerships with individuals of diverse backgrounds.

What’s the next step for you?
I’m not entirely sure at this point. As my passion for engineering and medicine continues to grow, I have become more excited to explore careers in entrepreneurship and science policy. I hope to utilize the skills I develop in my biomedical engineering doctoral program to foster creativity and innovation in my entrepreneurial endeavors, implement positive changes in society (scientifically, economically, and socially), and provide greater opportunities for others.

Favorite quotes that inspire your work/life?

  • Pain is temporary.
  • Work smart not hard.
  • If you aint cryin’, you aint tryin’!
  • Today, you are enough.

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