Celtics Dancer and Biomedical Engineering Student Strikes Balance On, Off Court

Kirsten Trinidad, EG26, is working to understand the sustainability of lab-grown meat during the day, and entertaining thousands as a Celtics Dancer at night

Kirsten Trinidad, EG26, always has her head in the game—but depending on the time of day, the game could be taking place on a basketball court or in a Tufts School of Engineering laboratory.

Trinidad is a doctoral candidate in Biomedical Engineering and her primary focus is on her 9-to-5 role, working on the scale up of cultured meat as well as life cycle assessments to understand its environmental impacts, she said. The treat waiting for her at the end of the day is another professional commitment entirely: entertaining thousands as a member of the Boston Celtics Dancers.

“Dance to me has always been so cathartic and such a great way to relieve stress,” Trinidad said. “So, it's almost like a reward system to me. I like to compartmentalize my two jobs and only focus on one at a time.”

“In the lab we were given superlatives, and the one I received was most likely to live a double life,” Trinidad said, laughing.

To be successful in both her creative pursuits and her STEM career, Trinidad said she’s developed different personas—and although they’re different, they’re also complementary.

 “The skillsets are so different,” Trinidad said. “But the discipline that I learned from school also applies to dance. And the creativity from dance can also apply to school, especially in a Ph.D. program where we're essentially forced to think about our own research ideas and creative solutions to problems we see. So, yes, I have two different personas, but they complement each other very well.”

Right now, Trinidad is working harder than ever to balance those personas and her commitments to her scholarship and dance career.

After reaching the 2022 NBA Finals before ultimately being taken down by the Golden State Warriors, the Celtics are back in postseason play, this year as a No. 2 seed. With 2023 NBA Playoffs games starting later and sometimes lasting longer, Trinidad is putting in extra hours for games and for practices—but the hard work is all worth it, she said.

Building Discipline

Trinidad grew up in New Jersey, where she found joy in dance from a young age. After initially giving up on the art as a toddler, her older sister convinced her to return to the studio in elementary school and it became a major part of her life from there on.

When she wasn’t dancing, though, Trinidad was focused on devouring information in the STEM fields, similar to how she structures her schedule now. That interest led her to Rutgers University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and packaging engineering.

It was during her time at Rutgers that she realized how much her academic commitments could help her succeed on the Rutgers dance team, and vice versa.

“I think I'm able to balance my life now because of Rutgers,” Trinidad said. “Competition dancing at the college level requires constant gym sessions and practices two to three times a week outside of football and basketball gameday commitments. That helped me learn how to balance everything because both are time consuming.”

After graduating from Rutgers, Trinidad continued to hone her two personas, spending days working as a packaging engineer at cosmetic companies in Manhattan. When it made sense for her schedule and her career, she would squeeze in professional dance tryouts she was sent by her talent agency.

“Dance has always been a supplement to my life,” Trinidad said. “It's never been 100% my personality. I've always loved science, so when I signed with my former talent agency, I would go to an audition if it fit my timeline. Rejection with an audition in New York City is so high and so my priority was always on my professional career.”

Finding a New Path

Trinidad’s dedication to her professional career is how she stumbled across the concept of cultured meat, which opened her eyes to a potential new career path.

“When I got my bachelor’s degree, graduate school was never in the cards for me,” Trinidad remembered. But that was before she delved into the ways in which industries outside of cosmetics and beauty were working to make their products more sustainable.

“Cosmetic packaging generates a lot of waste. There were ongoing initiatives to make packaging more sustainable and I was curious how we could quantify or benchmark sustainability efforts,” Trinidad remembered. “So, I spent a lot of time outside work reading papers and academic journals about how people do it in other disciplines, which really inspired me.”

In the course of her research, Trinidad found a paper about life cycle assessment, which is a sustainability methodology that’s often used in cellular agriculture, specifically cultured meat.

That spark led her to read more and learn about other potential impacts of lab-grown meat, like animal welfare and health benefits. She was so fascinated by the topic, she reached out to David Kaplan, Stern Family Professor of Engineering at Tufts, as well as Natalie Rubio, EG22, a recent alum of the Kaplan Lab, both among the first proponents of the field, to learn more.

Around the same time, she took a Tufts course in cultured meat online, and that experience confirmed what she already knew: she wanted to get into the lab.

Kirsten Trinidad wears a white lab coat and smiles while working in the lab.

Kirsten Trinidad, EG26, wears a big smile while working in the lab at Tufts University School of Engineering. Photo: Chettar Hoff

Now close to two years into her program, Trinidad is working in the Kaplan Lab, on the topic which originally piqued her interest: lifecycle assessment (LCA), which takes a holistic look at the process of creating cultured meat to quantify its environmental impacts.

“I feel like a lot of projects are focused on one aspect of an entire process, but LCAs are neat because they consider every single part of a cultured meat system. It's allowed me to learn about all aspects of creating meat in a lab,” Trinidad said. “It's also really cool because I can apply my findings from my other in-lab scale up projects to construct an experimentally-sound study.”

With that knowledge, Trinidad works as the student club lead for the USDA National Institute for Cellular Agriculture at Tufts University, educating other college students about the benefits and impacts of cultured meat. Tufts was one of several schools to receive a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2021 to establish the institute.

“My role helps work toward the institute’s education goal to reach out to as many students as possible and let them know about cultured meat and immerse them into the science in a very transparent and communicable way,” Trinidad said. “Science can be so daunting, so the whole goal of the student club is to get students from all different universities to make cell-ag less scary.”

Looking to the Future

Trinidad is wrapping up her first year with the Celtics. She looks forward to trying out for another season this summer, and potentially getting to experience veteran life on the team.

As a lifelong dancer, Trinidad is particularly proud to be a part of the Celtics Dancers, which is creating equity and space for dancers of all genders on its roster. There are three men on the team this season, which has meant updating routines and dances to include them.

“Because of how the professional dance world is changing with the emphasis on inclusivity of men, we sometimes have to change our choreography to be fitting for all genders,” Trinidad said. “Which I think is really cool because it shows that we're versatile and can adapt well. It brings a different kind of energy to the dances because I think everyone, gender regardless, has something unique to give.”

Trinidad also feels empowered as a woman on the team, knowing that she is there for the benefit of everyone in the audience.

“We’re there to entertain, but we’re not there for the sole entertainment of men,” Trinidad said.

The confidence she finds on the court has also helped her in academic pursuits as well. The discipline that Trinidad has honed has sparked her next goal in the lab. Once she completes her work in LCA, Trinidad hopes to spend the second half of her Ph.D. exploring the nutritional aspects of cultured meat.

“Because diet has been such a big part of my life with dance, nutrition would be a cool integration of both of my passions into my scientific work,” Trinidad said. “Without going into too much scientific detail, red meat has a bad reputation because it's correlated to higher incidence of colorectal cancer and atherosclerosis. So, what I want to figure out is if it’s possible to ameliorate or negate the negative effects of red meat in the lab. These pathologies are something in which I'm really interested.”

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