Published 24 June 2018 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research at #LINO18: Chelsea Cockburn from the USA

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).


Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Cockburn

#LINO18 young scientist Chelsea Cockburn, 27, from the USA is an MD-PhD student in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond, Virginia.

Her research focuses on host pathogen interactions between obligate intracellular bacteria and their host cells. In particular, she studies specific lipid pathways that these bacteria hijack with the hope to identify novel therapeutics that block these bacterial mechanisms.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I was convinced I was going to be a professional musician like my parents up until high school. I think a few things all happened at the same time to really inspire me to pursue a career in science and medicine. First, I took a biology class with the most wonderful teacher, Mr. Bair, who recognised that I had a knack for science and was interested in it. He mentored me and encouraged me to study biology in college. The same time I was taking that class, my grandfather had entered hospice and my family took a trip to visit him for the last time. Something about seeing the care that physicians provided to my grandfather and family, while also being able to see a direct application of the things I was studying in class triggered something in me. It was almost as if a lightbulb went off in my brain saying this is what you were meant to do. 

Who are your role models?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have some wonderful role models throughout my life. First and foremost, my parents are huge role models in my life and have pushed me to excel at whatever my chosen path is (although, I think they’ve secretly wanted me to be a scientist since I was a child and would always buy me science kits!). In terms of role models for my career, I really look up to Dr. Kami Kim at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. I did a summer internship in her lab as part of the Einstein Summer Undergraduate Research Program while I was in college. Kami was one of the first female physician scientists I interacted with and she strengthened my decision to pursue a MD-PhD. Randy Schekman is scientist who I really admire for both his quality of science as well as his fearlessness in addressing the problem of open access science and academic publishing reform. I’m looking forward to meeting him at Lindau in June!

Science and medicine benefit when there is a diversity of thoughts and ideas at the table.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia and was homeschooled until middle school. Believe it or not, I actually hated science during that time (mostly because there are so many questions we don’t have answers to), but my parents encouraged me to keep at it by buying me various science kits to do things like grow crystals or do chemistry reactions. I didn’t really like science until high school when I took biology with Mr. Bair. That was the first time science clicked for me and made sense. I then went to James Madison University and majored in biology. While at JMU, I did both microbiology and neuroscience research and also did internships over the summer. I’ve been fortunate to have my internships giving me a wide range of experiences from doing research on honey bees in Ghana, malaria at Albert Einstein, and preclinical drug trials at Amgen in California. I had so many wonderful mentors during undergrad that it is impossible to list them all. However, Dr. Janet Daniel and Dr. Sharon Babcock at JMU have been my biggest cheerleaders, advocates and listening ears as well as shoulders to cry on. I’m not sure I would have even considered an MD-PhD program without their encouragement. Currently, I am involved in the American College of Physicians on the national level and have gained many wonderful, strong women mentors in medicine, specifically Dr. Sue Hingle and Dr. Darilyn Moyer. Their advice about navigating the world of medicine (and leadership!) as a woman has been invaluable to me and helped me solidify my career goals, even when I was doubting myself as to whether I should even continue down this path.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

I don’t think I can pinpoint a project that is the coolest because each of them was fun to work on in its own way. I really do love my dissertation project because I’ve been able to take an observation from basic science all the way through an animal model. I also love that my project has direct application to the clinic as I’ve discovered that a certain class of FDA approved drugs eliminate bacterial infection. Being able to take your discovery from the bench to the bedside is something that I think every physician scientist aspires to have happen, so it’s been neat to watch this project evolve, and hopefully it becomes a reality for me soon!


Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Cockburn

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?

Any time my work is published in a journal, I feel a great amount of pride in what I do. In the medicine realm, I am on the Council of Student Members for the American College of Physicians and am also on their delegation to the American Medical Association House of Delegates. We do a lot of things related to health policy, such as advocating at the state and federal level as well as working to pass policy within ACP and AMA to benefit physicians and patients. Any time we pass a policy or speak up on issues that directly benefit/affect our patients fills me with immense pride and illustrates the impact we can have in the field of medicine. Such examples include ACP speaking out on issues such as gun violence as a public health issue or urging lawmakers to include women’s health in important policy discussions.

What is a “day in the life” of Chelsea like?

I typically wake up around 5:30 am and start my day with lots of coffee and a walk with my dog. Then I head off to my Pure Barre studio for a barre class and then arrive in lab around 8:30 am. My days in the lab vary greatly depending on what I need to get done. Often, I am in the lab doing experiments all day, but sometimes I will be at my desk for a large portion writing up manuscripts or making figures. I usually leave the lab between 4-5 pm, although sometimes later if I have time points for experiments. When I get home, I go to the dog park with my dog or take him on a walk and then go to the gym for some cardio. My evenings vary depending on the night: sometimes I’m doing work or am on a conference call, while other times I’m spending time with my boyfriend or simply just relaxing!

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

While I’m not 100% sure what I want to end up doing, I do see myself havingsome connection to health and science policy (whether that is my main career or a side interest). Ideally, I would like to work for either the CDC or WHO and do outbreak management and investigation. Regardless of what I do, I want to be involved in both the science and clinical aspect of my degrees.


Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Cockburn

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I am usually training for either a marathon or triathlon (sometimes both!), so I am often out doing a training run or swim. I also sing in the Richmond Symphony Chorus and am frequently at a rehearsal. When I finally have some downtime, I enjoy gardening, playing board games and drinking wine.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science?

Don’t give up. The glass ceiling is a real thing for women. There are many trailblazers who have come before you and made many cracks – it’s up to you to smash through.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?

That’s a hard question to answer as I’m not sure if there will be a singular breakthrough. I do think we are rapidly approaching a time when we will be able to cure genetically linked diseases in embryos with CRISPR, which brings up a whole slew of ethical issues both for science and medicine. Selfishly, I’m hoping the next great breakthrough will be altering the way we think about treating bacterial infections. Instead of attacking the bacteria itself, what if we were able to alter host cell processes that bacteria rely on in order to treat patients? I’ve shown this is the case with the bacteria I study, so I know it’s possible. And I think this would lead to less bacterial resistance and better treatment of patients.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

There’s a wealth of data out there that shows that we have just as many or even more (depending on the field) women than men coming through the science pipeline as students and post-docs. However, the biggest disparity occurs when they reach professor level. I think this is due to multiple things. First, everyone has unconscious biases and I do think there is still a lot of bias against women (both conscious and unconscious) in the sciences. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen women professors who bring their children to work or leave early to take care of a child be labeled as not serious about their career, stretched too thin or even unprofessional. However, when male professors do this, they often labeled as being a great father or kind/caring. At least here in America, we first need to start by passing an all-encompassing and generous family leave policy – maternity and paternity leave (for both births and adoptions), care of a sick family member, etc. In general, society needs to stop judging women for whatever decisions they make regarding family and career. You don’t want children? Great! You want to hire a nanny so that you can continue to work full time? Great! You want to work part time, so that you can spend more time with your children? Great!  Finally, science and medicine benefit when there is a diversity of thoughts and ideas at the table and the best way to accomplish this is by making sure to specifically include underrepresented groups (women, minorities, LGBTQ, disabled, etc.) when developing policies and in leadership roles. I think science as a field also needs to have better ways of addressing sexual harassment, mistreatment, and racism (of anyone, not just women); there should be a no tolerance policy regardless of what accolades that person has won. I can think of a few prominent scientists who espouse sexist and racist views yet are still lauded. We as a field need to put our collective feet down and say those kinds of views are not welcome in science and create an inclusive environment where all members are valued. 

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.