Chelsea Dieck Edwin, PhD, Class of 2019

Interviewed and written by Rosa Chavarro

Chelsea Dieck Edwin, PhD, grew up in Mount Kisco, New York. She attended Bucknell University, where she majored in Cell Biology/Biochemistry and minored in Dance. Then in 2019, Chelsea received her PhD at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in the lab of Dr. Adolfo Ferrando, where she studied mechanisms of chemotherapy resistance in T-ALL. Chelsea currently works at Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research as a Principal Scientist I in the Chemical Biology and Therapeutics Department.

Why did you choose Columbia for graduate school?

What led me to Columbia was a combination of my interest in cancer research and the amazing experience I had with faculty during the interview stage. I had always been interested in cancer biology, and I really wanted to do cancer research for my PhD. In addition, Columbia’s Med into Grad Program, which provided me with the ability to interact with MDs and PhDs, was really important to me as a biologist because I wanted to learn more about the patient experience.

I interviewed with faculty at Columbia’s Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, which had exciting research that aligned with my own interests in immuno-oncology at that time. The faculty were genuinely interested in me as a person, as well as my prior research experience. They asked me about my extracurricular activities, my family, and why I wanted to be in New York City for my PhD. I felt valued by the faculty from the start.

Additionally, I grew up just an hour north of New York City. After going to college in Pennsylvania, I wanted to be back in New York City for graduate school. Thus, Columbia was at the top of my list.

What sparked your interest in science?

I think that many different experiences and people in my life led me to my love for science.

First, my family: Both of my parents are MDs. I grew up listening to “science talk” at the dinner table, and was always trying to decipher what my parents were saying.

Second, my AP biology class in high school: Even though it was intense, I loved the class and thought it was really fun. I was fascinated to learn about what organelles could do in a cell, and by the extensive amount of little details that make a cell function. I loved studying biology, and this led to my decision to major in biochemistry in college.

Finally, my summer research experience: After my first year in college, I spent six weeks working in a lab and this experience sealed it for me! I spent all day in a dark room looking through a microscope, and I couldn’t have been happier–so I haven’t stopped doing science research ever since then.

Can you share about your experience as a PhD student at Columbia?

I really loved the Integrated Program at Columbia! It was a wonderful experience to get exposure to lots of different labs and types of research.

A few aspects of the program were most salient to me. First, the rotation experience: I ended up doing five lab rotations (while normally someone does two or three lab rotations). Throughout this process, the Program Directors were very supportive of me continuing to search and ensure that I found the best fit for me.

The Integrated Program did not restrict me. I could take any class I wanted. It gave me lots of opportunities to explore and learn. Most of my classes were uptown at the Medical Center in Washington Heights, but I was also able to take courses that interested me at the Morningside Heights Campus.

Additionally, I enjoyed the student seminars where fourth- and fifth-year students would speak about their work. It was motivating to see other PhD students in the program who were farther along in their journeys share what they were working on. One of my favorite things was listening to them and seeing that one day, I, too, could be like them and share a deep understanding of my work.

During your PhD studies at Columbia, what prepared you most for a scientific career in industry?

I think that my experience in the lab of Dr. Adolfo Ferrando prepared me the most for a career in industry. I had a fantastic experience in Dr. Ferrando’s lab learning just about everything! I worked on a number of different science areas from the genetics of a disease, to mouse models, to protein structures, to drug development. I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of research in his lab.

Other key preparation was managing several collaborators during my PhD research project. I helped organize presentations, experiment timelines, compound delivery/pick-up, microscope times, and more. I gained significant coordination skills that helped me tremendously in my transition to an industry setting.

I wanted to continue doing this work, and industry was a perfect fit because it was an extension of the work I was already doing in the lab. I loved drug development, and having access to collaborators and diverse science projects at my fingertips made it very exciting for me to go into the pharmaceutical industry.

What general advice would you give students about graduate school at Columbia?

For future students interested in applying to the PhD program at Columbia, I would tell them not to be afraid to ask questions or to advocate for themselves as they go through the application and interview process. It is okay to ask questions! It is also okay to know what type of research they would like to pursue, and it is okay not to know. I would advise them to explore and think big.

For current students in the program, I would tell them to make the most of their time at Columbia. There is a whole network of researchers doing a lot of different science, and people in this network can help your growth and development. As a graduate student, it can be intimidating to talk to principal investigators or to faculty—but the whole community is just about connecting with and supporting each other in this journey. Do not be afraid to ask questions or ask for help when you need it.

What advice would you give students about selecting a lab for their PhD research?

I would tell students going through lab rotations to talk with students or postdocs already working in labs. Take them to coffee or meet with them outside their labs, and ask them about their experiences.

You can also talk directly with principal investigators of labs. For example, ask the principal investigator if they have funding and space for you. If they say “no,” then take it as a real “no.” Don’t hope that in six months they will have space or funding for you. It is important to know that research in academia is driven by grants—so the lab either has funding or it doesn’t. The principal investigator cannot change this, so ask these questions up front. Also, if something doesn’t feel right to you or doesn’t fit, go with your gut feeling. You will be there for years—so if you take longer to decide which lab to join, that’s okay, too.

For students interested in pursuing a career in industry like you, what is one important thing that can help them along this path?

I recommend that students take ownership of their own experiences, and it’s beneficial to find as many opportunities as possible to collaborate with others. For example, if your principal investigator is very involved in communicating with others to facilitate collaborations, offer to help them or be part of that. I think this is a useful skill not just for the PhD experience—but also for life beyond the PhD program.

During my transition to industry, it was very helpful to collaborate with others on projects with measurable goals, clear deliverables, and timetables. When I was a PhD student, we had a grant from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society that required monthly meetings where we had to deliver a progress update with presentation slides. At the time, it was cumbersome and stressful to prepare, and required significant data collection and organization. However, as I think back, this experience prepared me very well for industry.

Who influenced you the most during your time at Columbia?

Dr. Adolfo Ferrando influenced me the most at Columbia. He pushed me to be the best scientist I could be. He challenged me to think outside of the box, to strive for big ideas and not to be scared by them, and to try new things.

My Committee Members and Program Directors also had a tremendous influence on me. They were supportive every step of the journey—always checking in with me.

Additionally, my PhD peers provided a sense of community. I feel fortunate that students in my cohort were friendly and supportive of each other. We practiced our qualification exams together. That sense of comradery made a huge difference for me.

What advice do you have for students about maintaining a work-life balance?

You can absolutely have work-life balance during graduate school—but you have to prioritize that for yourself. It is important to have this balance, and to take care of your mental health.

I was fortunate to meet my spouse at Columbia. During our third year of graduate school, we decided to get a dog. We now joke that this was the best decision for our mental health! It forced me to leave the lab and go home.

Now in my professional life, I have a great life-work balance. I can have time outside of work, while also having the ability to think about work whenever I want. My spouse and I now have a baby, two dogs, and people who depend on us in our families and in our community. It is possible to have a family and have a scientific career.

What excites you most about your future in science?

I think that right now, science is unlimited. I am excited about the development of new drugs and new techniques. There is so much more to explore and to learn!

Science has done so much in the past 50 years, but I think that we are just at the brink of using all of this knowledge. Today we are using new techniques to drug what was understood as undruggable 15 years ago. In another 10 years, we will have new techniques and the landscape will be totally different. The endless possibilities really excite me about the future of science.

I am so grateful to Columbia for helping me get to where I am today.