Edward Twomey, PhD, Class of 2018

Interviewed and written by Rosa Chavarro

Edward C. Twomey, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, and Director of the Beckman Center for Cryo-EM at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Twomey is the Principal Investigator of the Twomey Lab, a structural biology lab that focuses on understanding the atomic underpinnings of neurotransmission, as well as tight junctions at the blood brain barrier.

In 2018, Dr. Twomey earned his PhD with distinction from Columbia University, where he worked under the guidance of Dr. Alexander Sobolevsky and Dr. Joachim Frank. Prior to joining the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dr. Twomey completed postdoctoral studies with Dr. Tom Rapoport at Harvard Medical School.

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

I think the most fantastic aspect of the program at Columbia is that it really fosters students’ ambitious and diverse research interests in a collaborative environment. I was jointly mentored by Dr. Alexander Sobolevsky and Dr. Joachim Frank. The Directors of the Integrated Program encouraged this joint mentorship, which allowed me to cater my PhD toward my interests.

The diversity of training, which was very collaborative between the labs of Dr. Sobolevsky and Dr. Frank, still inspires me today. The science I do today is collaborative and interdisciplinary because of the transformative experience that I had at Columbia.

Why did you choose Columbia for graduate school?

I knew as an undergraduate student at Seton Hall University that I wanted to pursue a PhD in structural biology, and Columbia is a fantastic hub for structural biology and biophysics. So this is one of the things that brought me to Columbia—being able to apply structural biology to solve problems in membrane protein signaling. Also, I grew up in the New York City area and I really wanted to be in New York City for graduate school.

Who influenced you the most during your time at Columbia?

I think that the Program Directors had a great influence on me during my time at Columbia. I took advice from them during my lab rotations, and they steered me in a direction that I did not anticipate going into. Without this, I would not have had the PhD experience I had.

What sparked your interest in structural biology and science in general?

Initially, I wanted to go to medical school to become a clinician—but my plans changed when I joined a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) lab as part of my undergraduate program. I became fascinated with how technologies like NMR, and other techniques in structural biology, can be used to understand with extreme precision how drugs work. That really began to spark my interest in science and pursuing a PhD, instead of going to medical school. I have been working in the field of structural biology since then.

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

It is extremely important to realize that a PhD is a long journey. Students need to be committed to that journey and understand that it is not a linear path. There are many obstacles, ups, and downs at every juncture of this journey. But this is also part of the PhD experience—learning to problem solve across multiple dimensions.

I also think that as students pursue a PhD at Columbia, it is critical to take advantage of all the resources available for them. This program has a massive breadth of alumni in many areas, such as academia, pharmaceuticals, businesses, startups, and consulting. There are many different paths that someone can take, and it is helpful to interact with and learn from alumni across various fields and industries.

Finally, I recommend that students take advantage of lab rotations, and not limit themselves to one lab or one specific research question. Because a PhD is dynamic, it is possible that something could come out of the blue that really strikes a spark in you and takes you in a new direction. This is a unique time when you can explore diverse interests.

What advice would you give current and future students about developing mentoring relationships?

It is crucial that the relationship with your mentors works both ways. Find an environment that truly cares about your own goals and career development. Choose mentors who allow you to choose your own path along the science and to the answers that you want to find. This is critical for getting a complete PhD experience.

What advice would you give current and future students about choosing a lab?

As you go through the lab rotations phase, it is important to look at how happy the trainees are in each lab, and see how the trainees interact with one another. You want to be in a lab that has a collegial environment, where you are growing from interactions with your Principal Investigator and your peers.

Also, it is essential to learn new things during your PhD, rather than continuing along a trajectory that you are already familiar with. It will help you to go into an environment that encourages learning new aspects of science.

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

I recommend getting hands-on experience with grant writing as early as possible—whether that is asking your Principal Investigator to edit their grants, or reading examples of successfully submitted grants. In academic science careers, one of the most critical roles is securing funding for your lab.

It’s also crucial to be passionate about your intellectual interests. One thing that has kept me in academia is the desire to drive my own science by choosing my own scientific directions. I would not have had this opportunity to shape my own science early on in my career if I had gone into industry. 

What do you do for fun?

I am learning to play golf! It’s important to have work-life balance, especially during your PhD studies, so that you don’t burn out.

What excites you most about your future in science?

It is a unique and exciting experience watching my trainees grow. It feels extremely rewarding being on the other side as a Principal Investigator mentoring students.

I am also excited about continuing to build my lab. We have been at John Hopkins for almost two years now, and watching the progression of pursuing my own science has been exciting.

My experience at Columbia was transformative, and it has been the foundation for what I am doing today in my own lab—and for that, I am forever grateful.