BME BIO: Kelsey Gray, Kristopher Harris, Lance Murphy, Darnel Theagene

Feb 25 2021 | By Alexis Newman

In honor of Black History Month, get to know our exceptional BME faculty, students, staff, and alumni throughout the month of February.

KELSEY GRAY (BS ’20)


Kelsey Gray

 

Education

  • B.S, Biomedical Engineering, 2020

Noteworthy Achievements

  • 2nd Place in Columbia BME Senior Design Competition
  • NIH-IMSD Meyerhoff Fellowship Recipient

Where are you from?

Gwynn Oak, MD

What is your current position?

Biochemical Engineering PhD Student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County where I engineer filamentous fungi to make mycelium materials, or materials out of fungi. For example, here is a “fungal” cookie that we made from a genetic mutant of Aspergillus nidulans. We will be characterizing several different properties of this mutant and many others.


How did you become interested in STEM research and, more specifically, in biomedical engineering?

When I was a senior in high school, I was fortunate enough to have a genetics class that was offered that year. That class introduced me to the Human Genome Project where we also learned about Dr. Craig Venter. When learning about Dr. Venter, we watched a TedTalk that he had about “creating synthetic life,” or synthetic biology. My exposure to this topic is where I began to develop a strong interest in STEM. As I continued to further explore synthetic biology, I came across Dr. Tal Danino’s TedTalk and later learned that he was a professor at Columbia University in the BME department. Because I wanted to learn more about synthetic biology, I thought that studying BME at Columbia would grant me the best opportunity to do that. I then realized that I loved researching STEM after working with Tetsuhiro Harimoto, Tiffany Chien, and Jaeseung Hahn in Dr. Tal Danino’s Lab. They first put the idea of pursuing a PhD into my head, and I am so glad they did.

Tell us about your family. Who has/have been your strongest influence(s) in life?

My grandparents and my mom are my strongest influences. My mom works 4 jobs so she influences my work ethic tremendously. I spent a lot of time around my grandparents so I’d like to think I get my personality from them.

Tell us about your experience as a Black academic professional in STEM.

In my limited experience as an academic professional, it feels a lot like being late to learn stuff most people in the field who don't look like me already know. For example, when I was applying to PhD programs, the PhD students and postdocs in Dr. Danino’s lab who looked out for me and gave me phenomenal advice. However, even with all of their guidance (which was in abundance), there were still gaps in my knowledge about schools, fellowships and the overall application process that I would have been clueless about if it weren't for Dr. Aaron Kyle stepping in and helping me out during that time.

Then as I began to join more communities who looked like me such as my Meyerhoff Fellowship or the “black STEM Twitter'' space, I learned that these experiences were more common than I imagined. I always felt that I was always trying to catch up with what the majority of the STEM demographic already knew. Thankfully, in our monthly meetings hosted by Meyerhoff fellowship community we learn and talk about these types of topics that might not have been explained to people like me who are first generation college graduates or people who come from families that aren't in STEM. For example, I had no idea about the vast number of opportunities there are for scientists overseas and how there is a strong trend for black professionals, particularly in STEM, to emigrate from the United States to Europe for work.

These experiences really inspire me to give back and mentor those in my community so I can help spread knowledge, which I hope inspires my mentees to reciprocate onto others.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

My favorite types of books to read are historical nonfiction. That being said, BHM is really interesting to me because my culture that historically has always been omitted or diluted in most historical accounts is highlighted, which allows me to learn more about the lesser known stories from my culture. I hope that someday this type of attention towards the history of oppressed people in this country will become more mainstream in our country’s culture and education system instead of a month long event.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of, and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I am most proud of the fact that I am enrolled in a PhD program at an institution that supports me and is committed to funding my education. I am very fortunate to be at UMBC where I have access to a community, resources to keep me healthy, and a steady paycheck especially during a pandemic where many people do not have those same privileges. In the future, I hope to become a recipient of at least one of the many fellowships I applied to.

What advice would you give to others who wish to pursue a degree and/or career in BME?

Network, make a plan, talk to people, be kind to others, social media is your friend (hunter.io, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.), persevere through the hard times BUT take care of your mental health, question everything, take the time to get to know your professors they can change your life.

 


My mother and I during the Holidays (2020)

 

KRISTOPHER HARRIS (BS ’17, MS ’21)


Kristopher Harris

 

Education

  • B.S, Biomedical Engineering, 2017
  • M.S., Biomedical Engineering, Expected 2021

Noteworthy Achievements

  • Escaped from Iceland when my airline went bankrupt and cancelled all flights in 2019.

Where are you from?

I am from New Jersey. Past that, the history gets quite blurry unfortunately.

What is your current position?

I am an Engineer II, working with the Test Method Development/Verification and Validation Teams at Becton Dickinson.

How did you become interested in STEM research and, more specifically, in biomedical engineering?

It just so happened that my interests as a child were always more toward the scientific and engineering alignments. When I was young, I loved visiting the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey. I loved building things with Legos, Log Cabins. I loved electronics. And I also loved the idea of doctors. So, combining all of those, I found myself realizing that the Biomedical Engineering field was a mixture of all of my passions.

Tell us about your family. Who has/have been your strongest influence(s) in life?

My parents have always provided me with endless support for my ambitions. They never put too much stress or undue expectations. It was as if they knew I wanted to keep climbing, so they just did whatever they could to provide a helping hand, and never a forceful kick. It’s a freedom that so many other young adults didn’t have. Knowing that they want your success in whatever form it comes, and if you encounter any setbacks, they are there to pick you back up and march with you forward hand-in-hand.

Tell us about your experience as an African-American academic professional in STEM.

As it has been for me, I have had a positive experience. I have found that the way I am treated is solely defined by the competence and personality that I display and the results I bring to the table. I am lucky to be in an environment that promotes diversity and equality amongst all groups and with a workforce that focuses on the task at hand and not the identity of the person before them.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month is a time where I can reflect on the immense progress that Blacks/African-Americans have made throughout history. I remember the struggles and oppressions we’ve been forced to endure. However, I do not remember them as a source of malice or a chain that halts my evolution. Instead, I see it as inspiration for greatness. How so many could prevail against the overwhelming odds, rise up against the hate and inequalities, and promote a better future for us all is simply a marvel to comprehend. Using the history of my Black/African-American heritage, I find myself driven to be greater than my previous self. Success is in my history and it shall be in my future.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of, and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I am most proud of attaining a position in a Fortune 500 company, while also maintaining the ability to do a part-time graduate school. In the future, I am seeking to further my career and influence. I would like to become an inspiration to all those who want to make a positive impact to the world.

What advice would you give to others who wish to pursue a degree and/or career in BME?

I would suggest that you aim to become an expert problem-solver. Coming from an industry background, companies want solutions. The better and faster you are at providing those solutions, the more progress you will make in your career. Be proactive. If you have something you want, create a plan to get it and execute on it. Remember one thing: You are the author of your own story, and you have the power to direct your life.

 


I took the family out to the Intrepid Museum for Mother’s day a few years back. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and the temperature was perfect. It was one of the best days we have had as a whole family and I endeavor to create more like these in the future. We even went to a beautiful French restaurant called La Boucherie afterwards!

 


My father and I often went to the New York Auto Show when I was younger, but we had missed the last few years of it. So prior to the pandemic, I had us venture back down to see it again! We enjoyed the many types of vehicles, both concept and current. We also enjoyed the boat ride across the Hudson River that he organized.

 


Some friends I made back when I was working at Stryker helped me experience the fun of rock climbing and bouldering. It is an extremely fun and complicated activity that required both mind and body to be used in completely different ways. Every climbing route is considered a “problem” that needs to be solved, and you must take some interesting solutions to get to the top! I highly recommend.

 

LANCE MURPHY (BS ’18, former Research Technician)


Lance Murphy

 

Education

  • B.S., Biomedical Engineering, 2018, Columbia University
  • Former Research Technician in Prof. Clark Hung’s lab (Cellular Engineering Laboratory)
  • Current MD-PhD student, University of Pennsylvania

Noteworthy Achievements

  • Department award to graduates exhibiting excellence in BME

Where are you from?

Columbia, South Carolina

What is your current position?

I am currently a first year MD-PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine. My PhD is in the bioengineering graduate group. During my time at Columbia, I worked in Clark Hung’s lab as an undergraduate as well as two years post-grad as a research technician.

How did you become interested in STEM research and, more specifically, in biomedical engineering?

Growing up, I always wanted to be a scientist. I loved the idea of finding out new information about how the world works as well as innovating solutions to make it better. For this reason, I knew I wanted to be an engineer. However, I also had an interest in the medical field. One of my biggest role models growing up, my grandma, is a nurse. I loved hearing her talk about caring for her patients and doing what she could to make them happy and healthy. Because of this, I knew biomedical engineering was the field for me. I was able to bridge my interest in the medical field with my interest in engineering and innovation.

Tell us about your family. Who has/have been your strongest influence(s) in life?

As I mentioned before, my grandmother has been one of the strongest influences in my life. Not only was she a healthcare worker, but she was and is very involved with civil rights and the betterment of the Black community as a whole. So much so that she is actually the first female president of the SC NAACP. She showed me that I can be multi-faceted. I can be a physician, an engineer, and an activist at the same time.

Academically, my strongest influence came from my PI, Dr. Clark Hung. Academia can be a scary place for anyone, especially an underrepresented minority. Ever since joining the lab, I always felt a strong sense of caring and hope from Dr. Hung. He made me feel comfortable by both validating my experiences as well as telling me how proud he was at how I overcame them to become the researcher I am today. It’s very apparent he wants me to reach my full potential, and he does everything he can in his power to make sure I do.

Tell us about your experience as a Black academic professional in STEM.

My experience as a Black academic professional has been multi-faceted. Growing up with my background, I experienced a lot of the injustices that people are now understanding to be very real and very problematic. Starting as early as elementary school, I recall having teachers assume I wouldn’t get my work done or do well in a class. With these experiences comes a resilience: an ability to see these interactions, move past them, and even grow from them. Because of that, I believe it makes me a stronger person as well as a stronger researcher. I know how to fight and persevere until my goals have been met. I look forward to using these experiences in the future as a practicing physician because I think they will allow me to be more empathetic and caring to my patients. Furthermore, I can use my standing as a physician-scientist to help enact social change.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

To me, Black History Month means not only understanding what has happened to Black populations in the past, but taking it a step further to understand how this past affects the present systemic and structural problems that many Black people face. This understanding arms every individual to do what they can to mitigate and solve some of these problems.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of, and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

To be honest, my biggest accomplishment is getting to the point I am today, despite the systemic factors against me. Not only that, but showcasing that to the world as an inspiration to those who don’t think they have the capabilities of getting to where they want to be. When I graduated from Columbia, I was walking around campus in my cap and gown, and I remember seeing these two Black children who were staring at me. As I walked by, I heard them say “wow he just graduated from Columbia, AND he’s black.” I could hear the inspiration in their voice, and it filled me with so much happiness and fulfillment. I hope to make sure that in the future, I continue to inspire others, and not only inspire them, but help them get to where they want to be by mentoring on an individual level, but also by doing what I can to enact structural change.

What advice would you give to others who wish to pursue a degree and/or career in BME?

My advice would be that sometimes things may seem really difficult and extremely daunting. It may even seem impossible. However, what I have found is challenging yourself and persevering through the hardships makes you that much stronger on the other side of it. BME is such a rewarding and diverse field. As long as you do what you love within it, opportunities will come flying your way.

 


Roaming the streets of Seattle

 


The Cellular Engineering Laboratory at the Orthopedic Research Society conference in Austin, TX. February 2020

 


Standing in the Jordan Medical Education Center at the University of Pennsylvania

  

DARNEL THEAGENE (BS ’18, MS ’20)


Darnel Theagene

 

Education

  • B.S., Biomedical Engineering, 2018
  • M.S., Biomedical Engineering, 2020

Noteworthy Achievements

  • Bernard Jaffe Prize for the Encouragement of Inventiveness in Engineering at Columbia Engineering, 2018
  • 1st Place Rice 360 Global Health Technologies Design Competition, 2018
  • 1st Place Columbia Fast Pitch Competition, 2017

 

Where are you from?

I am from the little town of Hightstown New Jersey in mercer county New Jersey.

What is your current position?

Currently I lead the Software Development and Datascience team at Sense4me, a startup medical device company working on wearable devices for improving mental health. I am currently applying to graduate programs so that I can obtain my PhD.

How did you become interested in STEM research and, more specifically, in biomedical engineering?

I think I was always interested in the sciences growing up, but I owe a lot of that interest to teachers I had who loved what they were doing. I had a physics teacher in high school who always made classes fun and interesting. He would also cite many fun movie references during classes. I had a math teacher who introduced me to lots of logic puzzles on the backs of quizzes, which really got me into problem solving. Going into college, I know that I wanted to do either engineering or try a pre-med track. After a little bit of soul searching, I decided that being a Medical Doctor wasn’t for me, but I found a nice in-between in biomedical engineering that merged my interests together.

Tell us about your family. Who has/have been your strongest influence(s) in life?

I have great, strong, connected, and loving family. My parents and grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti. I have great respect for my grandfather who has worked hard his entire life (and continues to work hard today at 91 years old) to do anything to help his family. I also have a great deal of love and respect for my mother and her two sisters who taught me many values, from patience and kindness, to respect and industriousness. Being born in the United States, I have been able to take advantage of many wonderful opportunities that they weren’t able to, like attending University and getting my Master’s degree. They worked hard and sacrificed so that I could be here today and I will make the most of this wonderful opportunity.

Tell us about your experience as a Black academic professional in STEM.

I feel that I am privileged to be able to say that I have had a very mostly positive experience as a Black academic professional in STEM, which I know isn’t always the case. I feel I am lucky to say that many of the STEM classrooms or jobs that I have been involved with have encouraged my growth and success. At times, this has even allowed me to reach out and be a mentor to other younger Black professionals in STEM who aren’t receiving that same level of encouragement that I feel is vital to growing students and professionals.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

To me, Black History Month is a celebration and a tradition. Celebrating the many great achievements and accomplishments of hardworking people who may otherwise go unnoticed because of their skin.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of, and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I am really proud of recently completing my Master's degree in Biomedical Engineering. I hope to successfully get into a doctorate program and get my PhD In biomedical engineering.

What advice would you give to others who wish to pursue a degree and/or career in BME?

Go for it! BME is a great field with many opportunities, so make sure to stick with what is interesting and exciting to you and you’ll do great.

 


Graduating from Columbia BME (2018)

 


I practically lived at the Blue Java in the Mudd Building; their coffee and friendly conversation always brightened my day.

 


A picture of my family

 


Me presenting research on Non Convulsive Electro-therapy as a treatment for depression

 


Me hiking

 


A photo of me and my awesome mother

  

 

  

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion