Postdoc Feature Series with Jude Phillip

Our latest installment in the Postdoc Features series promoting the research and lives of our impressive postdocs and postdoc alumni. 

Heidi Meyer & the Postdoc Association.

Jude Phillip is a postdoc alum, who completed his postdoc research with Dr. Leandro Cerchietti and Dr. Ari Melnick in the Department of Medicine, Hematology division. Jude has recently made a very successful transition to an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University where his lab combines biomedical and chemical engineering techniques to investigate biological ageing dynamics. 

Recent Achievments:

  • 2020 – American Institute of Chemical Engineers MAC Distinguished Young Professional Award
  • 2020 – 1000 Inspiring black scientists in America (Cell Mentor and Community of Scholars) 

Recent Publications:


Where was your background before Weill Cornell and Johns Hopkins?

I grew up in Grenada and I came to New York in 2006 to start my undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering at the City College of New York. Following that I went to Johns Hopkins University for my Ph.D. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Then in 2016 I joined Weill Cornell as a postdoc, where I was co-advised by Leandro Cerchietti and Ari Melnick in the hematology division.

 What do you love about Baltimore and how has it changed since you were there during undergrad? Particularly about Baltimore, I like that it’s a smaller city, definitely less crowded than New York. Having grown up in Grenada, I think when I first came to New York it was kind of a culture shock because there’s a lot of people and just a lot of everything. I think Baltimore is more like a happy medium. One of the things that I really like about Hopkins is how collaborative the academic community is. That’s one of the key reasons I chose to come back. Also, I have some familiarity with the program, the people, and I know that I will be supported here to pursue some of my most creative ideas. There’s a very strong engineering school, strong medicine, and in the area of aging some of the world experts are here. 

Is there anything you miss about New York City?

Definitely! A lot of my family, my friends, and other things I like to do are in NY. One of the big things I do miss is access to Caribbean food. My wife is from Dominican Republic, and we tend to eat quite a bit of Caribbean food. One of my favorite foods to eat is Caribbean-style Roti, which is a food that was passed down as part of Indian heritage in the southern Caribbean. The Caribbean-style version is like a burrito, except, the wrap is a Dhal Puri with the curried meats, veggies and potato on the inside. In New York there are so many places – you just walk down the street and get something, or even in the supermarkets you can get Caribbean ingredients that you can cook, but it’s a bit more difficult to get that here in Baltimore. I’m sure there are places, although not as common, so we’re definitely looking to see where those places are. 

What kind of scientist are you?

I’m actually a Chemical Engineer by training, both my degrees are in Chemical Engineering, but the work that I do is very much Biomedical Engineering. My official title at Hopkins is Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, but I also have affiliations and a secondary appointment in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering as well as Oncology. 

What project are you most excited to get started in your new lab?

One of the things I’m super excited about is the concept of being able to rethink aging through the perspective of an Engineer. I started getting very interested in aging a few years ago, partly because there are census projections that the older population is poised to significantly increase over the next 30 years. With that comes many challenges, including more age-associated diseases – various multi-morbidities, cancer, Alzheimer’s – but also, increased health care costs, which will negatively impact our socioeconomics. As an engineer I like to also think of the big picture: What are the individual components that actually feed into these big societal problems, how do they interrelate and how can we come up with innovative solutions? I think this is a place that we can really have an impact.

The approach that I’m taking is trying to understand aging itself, and then using that to develop technologies to predict aging trajectories in humans and understand disease. An overarching question that we have is why do we age differently? When you look at three individuals, let’s say they’re all 85 years old, one can run a marathon, one is bedridden, and the other one is somewhere in between. Chronologically they’re all the same age, but biologically, and based on the manifestation of diseases, disorders, or dysfunctions, they’re different. So, the big question is: are there things about a person that that we can measure that would allow us to predict these aging states, and how far ahead of time can we predict? To do this we are studying phenotypes of cells, as many age-related dysfunctions likely start off as defective cells. Cells are integrators of molecular signals, and as defective cells arise, they propagate throughout tissues and organs, eventually manifesting as diseases. So, there may be a lead time between the dysfunction of the cell and the manifestation of the disease, and if we can identify these dysfunctional cells, we should be able to predict the manifestation of the disease, this is something that we are actively working on and we are particularly excited to learn more about the potential magnitude of a lead time. That’s the big picture, broad strokes of what we’re interested in. But we’re also developing technologies to profile cells and then linking these biophysical profiles to molecular states that we can eventually target with drugs or therapies.

Another aspect of my lab is focused on cancer, in terms of understanding the aged lymphoma microenvironment, and how the aged macroenvironment—the body, potentially drives and shapes the pro- lymphoma aged microenvironment, with the goal of identifying targetable vulnerabilities. The goal and vision of my lab is really geared towards impacting human health, and impacting people, through technology development and biological discovery. 

Is the research in your independent lab building on the research you carried out as a postdoc?

The back end of my Ph.D. is where I started developing these cell-based technologies to determine age of healthy people. Then I specifically wanted to step away from engineering a little bit for my postdoc and work with physician scientists. I only applied to labs that were run by physician scientists for my postdoc. That’s when I was hired by Ari Melnick and Leandro Cerchietti to work on the lymphoma microenvironment.

They’re world experts in lymphoma biology and epigenetics and their labs have helped to define some critical pieces of lymphoma biology, so when I joined, I started focusing more on the microenvironment in trying to understand the coordination of the different cell types and extracellular matrix components within the lymphoma niche. For my own lab, because of my interest in aging and disease, I’m also combining multiple aspects of the lymphoma microenvironment. So, we are looking at healthy aging trends with cells, but then also looking at aging trends within the microenvironment more as a way to decipher disease phenotypes. 

What techniques do you use?

We use a number of different techniques to study ageing trends in cells. When I think of aging, I tend to think in terms of scales, essentially four scales of aging: molecular, cellular, clinical, and epidemiological, and the scales are very much interrelated. Many scientists who study molecular aspects of aging, profile molecular changes in signaling, genetics, epigenetics, etc. Persons who focus on the clinical aspects of aging, for instance the physicians, focus on age-associated changes that occur in the context of disease manifestation. But there’s essentially a connection between these scales.

We think that there is a potential advantage that comes from looking at cells. To understand this, we use high-throughput single-cell imaging together with computation approaches to measure biophysical properties of cells. We take cells from healthy and diseased individuals across different ages, for instance we can take blood cells and then look at T-cells or monocytes, or we can take skin biopsies and then extract dermal fibroblasts and measure various properties. We can measure how the cells look – essentially have them spread on a 2D substrate or within a collagen gel or another three-dimensional hydrogel and then quantify their morphology. We can measure how they move – we expose them to different drugs, or we put them in different matrices, and quantify their movements. Also, in order for the cells to move, and in order for them to attain a particular shape, they exert forces. They can pull on surfaces or surrounding collagen fibers. So, we can also calculate how much force these cells are generating. We also look at biomolecular properties of cells, for instance energy production based on ATP, DNA organization and cytoskeletal organization. We measure hundreds of parameters for hundreds-thousands of cells. So far, we have seen that using just a few of these parameters together with biomedical data science approaches and machine learning, we can predict the age of healthy individuals, showing that the cells encode aging information. But we are excited to push this even further towards predicting not just age, but aging patterns. 

What is the symbolism of your lab logo, the (tiME)n lab?

It’s a play on a couple things. One, it’s a play on the “tumor immune microenvironment” – t, i, M, E. But then I also have it in parentheses with a little n superscript, so it also includes the changes through the passage of real time. In combination, we’re asking how does the tumor immune microenvironment change with time? So, how does tiME change with time. 

How is it going setting up your independent lab?

Some of the things I’m learning as I go. The workload, all the different things that go into starting up a lab – I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn’t anticipate it was going to be this much, this fast. There are a lot of moving parts. Something as simple as trying to get the best deals when purchasing a piece of equipment takes a lot of going back and forth, talking to different reps, and having to figure out what is a good price point, or what are some things I can compromise on, etc.

Another aspect is the restrictions because of COVID. Whether with lab space and renovations or the density of persons in the offices or labs. When I started, the restriction at Hopkins was 1 person per 400 square feet. My temporary lab space is a couple hundred square feet, so initially it was only one person allowed in that space at a time. Now its three, with 1 person per 150 square feet. It can be a bit overwhelming at times, understanding the logistics, and setting things up, and getting students, and trying to recruit, but I’m learning quickly. Right now, I have one postdoc and I have a graduate student, so two people, I’m hoping to recruit another two graduate students this fall, and I am also trying to recruit a postdoc.

One of the things I am learning is tempering expectations and experiencing the process. Sometimes we look at our PI’s and think “yeah they just sit in their office all day, I could do that it’s just meetings and writing”. But the amount of meetings that you navigate, the amount of writing, grants and emails navigating your schedule – there’s a lot more than you would expect, or at least more than what I expected, especially this early on. I think that many postdocs will benefit from gaining more insights into what it’s like to be a new PI, and building your lab, etc., and it would help to have more transparency in the process. This was something that I experienced while going through the interview process for faculty positions. You have to prepare and deliver a chalk talk, yet you’ve never seen a chalk talk. You have to give these job talks, and interact with faculty, yet in many cases, you’ve never had the experience before. I think definitely having more awareness and experience will help. I think that having more postdoc organizations, PIs or different departments helping to provide more insight as to what that is like is much needed, particularly in the postdoc phase. But all that being said, there was a lot that my PIs and mentors did in order to help me be prepared. Also, being at Hopkins, I have a great support system, faculty within my department and institute– they’ve been super helpful. Finding a place where you can strive and people are actually excited about you being here is a big deal. I feel welcomed, I feel like I fit in, and I feel that people actually want me here and are rooting for my success, which I think it critical for a junior PI. 

What characteristic are you looking for as you recruit new trainees and lab personnel?

My goal is really to build an interdisciplinary lab. Initially I was looking for someone with a similar background to my own, having both experimental and computational experience. But this has changed a bit over the last several months, and I have projects that are fully experimental, fully computational or hybrid.

I think at the core, I’m looking more at potential and curiosity as opposed to somebody who has a specific background. I think someone who is curious, driven and determined is the person that I want to work with and that person will be able to grow within my lab. Having an openness to learn, openness to push new boundaries or test new ideas. In the beginning, as an Assistant Professor, you’re testing multiple things, trying to see which paths work, as you try to establish your research program. In some cases, the workload on any one student or trainee may be a little bit more. But I think there’s a balance of risk/reward that could really drive innovation. Also, I think the fact that an Assistant Professor is hired, means that after going through that grueling process, other smart people (faculty) think that the ideas they’re proposing are feasible, and sound, fundable and potentially exciting. 

Do you have any advice for postdocs, particularly those going down academic career path?

For someone wanting to go into academia, at the postdoc phase, I would say stay determined, stay curious, and stay motivated. There’s a lot of things that go through our minds, as postdocs, particularly when we have interest in making that transition. I can speak for instance for me, I had mentors and colleagues who told me that I was ready before I felt that I was ready. I think having that network of people, that network of mentors, is critical, because they can see things in you that you can’t see or aren’t able to see yet. There’s a great advantage in having a network of mentors, and I would even qualify it a little bit further and say an “activated” network of mentors. They have to be activated in the sense that they have to know what it is that you want to do, or what your aspirations are. I think many times we look too much to just our PI, or one mentor, to be that one person for us. But one person can never provide everything that you need so that’s why you need a network—a village. So stay determined, stay driven, and keep your network of mentors activated.

 What technical and professional development resources did you take advantage of at Weill Cornell? As a postdoc, I attended a number of conferences, webinars, and other career development workshops. I also attended the programs that are offered through the Tri-I (Weill Cornell, Rockefeller and MSKCC), such as the “Transition to Research Independence” series and boot camps. I attended the “Transition to Research Independence” the last two years as a postdoc– the year before applying and the year I was applying. I also attended their boot camps, where you get to see what a successful and unsuccessful application looks like, and you also bring the drafts of your application documents to get feedback from your colleagues and peers. I think that was super helpful for me. Having other people read your research and teaching statement is helpful. Of course, I think that your PI should read it too.

I also had a couple of peers at Weill Cornell, in sort of like a peer-mentoring group, we would meet up and discuss ideas, push ideas back and forth, and encourage each other. They helped me a lot in fine tuning my teaching and research philosophy documents and staying encouraged. You also want people outside of your field to read your research plan. One of the things you quickly realize on interviews is that it’s a very broad audience and you have to try to reach everybody. Everybody has their own expertise, but in the end, everybody has to gain an understanding of what you want to do. 

What is your experience navigating the balance between work and family life?

Family life and balance is something that is very important to me. My daughter turns two in March, she was born while I was still a postdoc. I actually took two months of paternity leave while as a postdoc. I remember the decision of whether to take it or not was a tough one, because it puts you back at least two months since most times it takes more time to start things back up. But my mentors were very understanding in that regard and realized that I needed to have that time to be able to help my family make that adjustment. Even now, as an assistant professor we are still adjusting, but we make it work. I typically do drop-off and pick-up, my wife is a physician so her schedule is a bit more rigid than mine in terms of scheduling. It can be challenging at times, and sometimes you’re running on little sleep, but it’s worth it. I think, taking the time to be with your family is important to overall happiness, and in my experience, I am more productive when I am happy.

A lot of times we get fixated on the narrow outlook of our career and the mechanics of academia, that family sometimes takes a backseat. I’ve heard so many people say to me “when you start your Assistant Professor position, pre tenure, it’s going to be tough. You’re going to be in the office or in the lab all the time. Your family is not going see you”, but I think having heard people say that has made me a more cognizant, and I am actively trying to correct for this to make sure I am managing my time wisely, as best as possible. So, when I’m in lab and the office I can focus on that, and then when I’m home I can focus on being home. Of course, you have to work at home as well, but I try to compartmentalize certain things to make sure my family doesn’t suffer. My goal is to have my career take off and succeed, but also ensure that my family life is staying healthy and everybody’s happy. 

Your lab website has a section for outreach, what does this look like for you?

Outreach is something I’m super excited about and I have been involved in outreach since my time as an undergrad at CCNY. I am passionate about it, but also one of the reasons why I put it on my website is to keep me honest. To actually find the time to do it, and also to have people know that it’s something I’m very interested in.

As a student in chemical engineering at City College of New York, I was on the leadership teams for the OXE—Chemical Engineering Honor Society and the local chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and I helped drive a number of outreach initiatives. We’d go into local middle schools or high schools to teach and demonstrate STEM concepts and try to encourage students into STEM. I think my interest with outreach went to the next level when as a PhD student I was invited to serve on a panel for a STEM outreach event at Fordham University. These were all young Black and Latino middle school students and all of us as panelists were either Black or Latino, engineers, doctors, lawyers and so forth. I remember speaking to the students about chemical engineering and the ways that chemical engineers impacted their daily lives, through medicines, energy, etc., and they were all super excited, I was trying to make it fun. Then, a little girl put her hand up to ask me a question and she asked me if she can be a chemical engineer. That really hit me in the sense of she was asking essentially the wrong question. She was asking if as opposed to how. So, I think one of my big drives is to have students asking the right question from the start, not asking if, they’re asking how. Being an example and having my lab be heavily involved in these outreach events, potentially participating in middle school or high school science days and even after school programs – that’s one of the things that really drives me. I think incorporating research and education with outreach is a powerful combination that could really have an impact. In my research I’m trying to have impact on people’s health and in my outreach, I’m trying impact the future students for the better. 

Is there anything else people might be interested to learn about you?

One of the things I’ve learned is that having hobbies is a good thing. I started running as a postdoc. I ran track and field in high school, and I was not good at all. Then, as a postdoc, one day I thought “I would like to run a 5K”, and I started training towards a 5K. I think I used this app “Couch to 5K” because I hadn’t run in so long. Then it just picked up and I ran the New York City Marathon twice, once through the lottery and the second time I qualified through the 9+1 through New York Road Runners. I still enjoy running, although I need to carve out some more time to do it, something I have to work on. A lot of times I get really good research ideas when I’m running. So, I’ll be running and then I get an idea, pull out my phone, type it in the notes, and then keep going. I think it’s a good hobby, I get a sense of clarity and it helps me de-stress. 

What are you most excited about in the upcoming year?

I’m really excited about seeing my lab grow and seeing the things that my trainees are going to accomplish. I’m also really excited to see how the research develops, and how we can establish different collaborations going forward, and really impact people because at the core of my research philosophy is impacting people.


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