Celeste Nelson wins NIH Director’s Pioneer Award

Bioengineer Celeste Nelson, who explores the architecture of animal tissues and organs, has won a Director's Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), recognizing her major contributions to the field of tissue engineering.

Nelson, Princeton’s Wilke Family Professor in Bioengineering and a professor of chemical and biological engineering, is one of the eight recipients of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. Established in 2004, the Pioneer Award challenges investigators to pursue new research directions and develop groundbreaking, high-impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical, behavioral or social science.

Nelson investigates how tissues develop in mammals, birds and reptiles. When she first started studying chicken lungs more than a decade ago, most researchers believed that “chicken lungs were the same as mouse lungs were the same as human lungs,” Nelson said. “And that’s not true. … Different organisms have different organ structures, and that’s beautiful, and we can learn a lot from it.”

After earning S.B. degrees in both chemical engineering and biology at MIT in 1998, Nelson attended the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she was awarded her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering in 2003. She then completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Mina Bissell’s group in the Life Sciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Nelson’s research been recognized by a number of previous awards, including a Packard Fellowship, a Sloan Fellowship and a Faculty Scholar award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Her teaching has been honored by the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Distinguished Teacher Award and the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Nelson is the director of the undergraduate certificate program in engineering biology and the graduate certificate program in bioengineering.

Along with Nelson, Princeton professors Michelle Chan and A.J. te Velthuis are among 103 researchers nationwide to receive 2022 High-Risk, High-Reward research awards from the NIH, created to support unconventional approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research.

“The science advanced by these researchers is poised to blaze new paths of discovery in human health,” said Lawrence A. Tabak, the acting director of the NIH. “This unique cohort of scientists will transform what is known in the biological and behavioral world.”

The 103 awards, including eight Pioneer Awards, 72 New Innovator Awards, nine Transformative Research Awards and 14 Early Independence Awards, account for more than $200 million in research spending over five years.


  • Celeste Nelson


  • Bioengineering and Health

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    Chemical and Biological Engineering