Meet Lifelong Student and Chemistry Professor Dr. Shelby

Feb 15, 2019

by Mark Haver '20
Student Writer

From being a first-generation college student who grew up in Flint, Michigan to becoming one of the most beloved faculty members across campus, Dr. Shameka Shelby, Assistant Professor of the Chemistry Department, shares with us what her experience has been like teaching and interacting with students here at Florida Southern.

Not only is Dr. Shelby known for her extraordinary capability to relay information in creative and relatable ways by her students, but this mother of a nine-year-old boy is also an avid reality tv fan. This caring professor is dedicated to establishing meaningful connections and relationships inside and outside of the classroom. In this interview, Dr. Shelby shares more about what it means to be part of the Florida Southern community and how she has enjoyed sharing her passion for chemistry.

It’s so nice getting the chance to interview you, Dr. Shelby. As a student with many friends who have gone through your organic chemistry classes, I have heard such great things! Before we dive in to the amazing things you are achieving here at Florida Southern right now, I would love to know more about your past. Can you tell us more about your background, like where you grew up and what your childhood was like?

I am from Flint, Michigan! Believe it or not, growing up there was not terrible. I think it was one of those things where you don’t really understand that your environment is what it is until you actually leave. Things weren’t nearly as bad when I was growing up as they are now. I really didn’t know, but growing up with my family was wonderful. I have great parents and grandparents! I learned a lot from my granddad on my dad’s side: he might have made it to seventh grade in school, yet I remember having some trigonometry homework and asking him for help. He literally went and got a book and read the book and was able to help me. Nothing past seventh grade, but he could do that.

“I feel so honored to be involved with so many students at this stage in their life and to build relationships with these students.”
Dr. Shameka Shelby

Wow, thank you for sharing that incredible memory of your grandfather. It’s so great that even though he might not have had the same academic opportunities as you that he was so willing to encourage you to pursue a higher education. Did your parents go to college or push you to pursue academia?

My parents did not really go to college actually. My mom ended up going up after the fact, and my father might have taken a class, but I was definitely the first full-time, college-aspiring person in both sides of the family. Once my family saw that I had the ability to get a better education, they were really supportive in getting me to do whatever I had the ambition to do. I think I was a little girl saying I wanted to be a scientist.

I think if you were to go back and tell your younger self that now you were a full-time chemistry professor at Florida Southern, your scientist-aspiring self would be quite impressed! You ended up obtaining a B.S. from Xavier University, and you went on to a PhD at the University of Michigan in biochemistry, where you then performed post-doctoral research on the degeneration of the retina, right? What made you so interested in chemistry, and what makes you so interested in eye research?

Coming from Flint community schools, we didn’t have a lot of options in terms of upward level science courses, but chemistry was probably one of the few things that you could take as a more advanced course. Don’t tell Dr. Pepino this, but my brain just did not want to handle physics. Chemistry was really one of the few science courses that wasn’t biology or physics that peaked my interest, and it came really easily for me at that level.

I was originally interested in many topics that are disease-related because my mother has sickle cell trait, but all of her sisters had sickle cell anemia, so I wanted to do what I could to advance the field of disease-based research. Originally, I wanted to have some really groundbreaking intervention on sickle cell anemia that they could benefit from, but as time went on and as I went to graduate school and there wasn’t very much research being done on that, so I shifted gears and focused on other things that I was interested in, which eventually morphed into interest as to how our bodies work. And as I focused on that, now I am looking more specifically at the eye, with that particular layer of cells which is the retinal pigment epithelium.

Every day, you wake up, your eye opens, and sun hits your eye. Those photons of light hit your photoreceptors, and isomerization reactions occur which cause your discs of your photoreceptors to be damaged. That damaged disc is actually engulfed by the retinal pigment epithelium. The forefront of my research right now is based on trying to figure out how the phagocytosis mechanism works in the isomerization process because there are hundreds of genes that are somewhere along that cycle or process, and if those genes are faulty, then you’re blind. Not only does this lead to blindness in children at a very young age, but age-related macular degeneration also has those phagocytic issues that lead to blindness. People don’t really know how this is actually occurring. We know what the resulting phenotype is, but we don’t know how the eye gets there. It may be different from my original pathological interest, but it’s still somewhat related to disease, and I am happy that I still get to try and advance how our understanding of how to help people with this as a condition.

Dr. Shameka Shelby.
Dr. Shameka Shelby.

This research sounds so fascinating, and I can tell that you’re passionate about finding a way to help people with this condition. It must be so rewarding that you are able to share this passion with students who also get to engage in your research. Along with being able to teach about this and performing research, what does being a professor mean to you?

It means a lot! I feel so privileged to be able to do what I do because this time in your life is so transformative. Thinking about how much you all have evolved from the time that you walk into this institution definitely makes me appreciative of the fact that I get to play a massive part in that. I feel so honored to be involved with so many students at this stage in their life and to build relationships with these students. College literally made me who I am today and changed my views so much, and to be able to be part of a community that cares about students’ well-being and future is the best thing that I can do to give back to a community of this caliber that allows me to do what I love. I don’t mean to be gushy, but this is such an important piece of your lives, and I really love getting to watch you all grow. Even challenging students to see things differently in discussions inside or outside of the classroom is an opportunity that you cannot have anywhere else.

And as you get to work with students, I am sure that there have been many moments during your academic career that have shaped your teaching and learning philosophies. As having been a student, and a now a teacher, do you have any defining moments that shaped those philosophies?

As a teacher, essentially what we are is a lifelong learner, especially for the scientist. As we continue to learn and things continue to change, we have to adapt and perform research with students in a way that is informed by the newest information. We can’t just ignore whatever developments are coming out in the scientific community, so we have to adapt what and how we teach.

Learning how to convey information at a different pace is also something that shapes how I teach now. One of the objectives of any of our science classes is being able to explain complex information to lay audiences, and that is so key, because I think a really effective teacher has the ability to do that. Even if you all already know a little bit, we still have to be able to use what tools we can to explain things ordinarily. It’s about using creative methods like comparing elimination reactions to Florida’s huge wetland birds. I know it may seem outlandish, but getting students to think outside the box and attacking a problem differently is a teaching skill that needs investment. It can be really difficult to do well, but a lot of my colleagues have that ability and are able to get students to step outside of what is in the textbook or what I am saying right then to illuminate the topic in a different way that may get students to more fully understand the concept.

“One of the most important parts of my job is making what I am teaching relevant to everything, and that’s the great thing about chemistry: it’s so interdisciplinary!”
Dr. Shameka Shelby

One of my favorite moments are those “lightbulb” moments with students. I am not necessarily referring to the satisfaction of finally being able to understand a certain principle, but being able to see that moment that inspires students and increases their interest in the field is so rewarding.

I think another thing that has been really eye-opening is interacting with students and understanding that being a professor does not mean there has to be this pretentious pontificating relationship between me and the students I see every day. I have so much to learn from you all too, and in my experience, having that back and forth between me and my students in the classroom has allowed all of us to approach and think about things differently. When you all are engaged, so am I.

And don’t worry Dr. Shelby, I definitely think that investment in the students translates to us as well. I have had so many of my friends who have taken your organic chemistry classes, and they really enjoy how you are able to take things very step by step in a way that makes it easier for them to understand. Not to be a sycophant, but they appreciate the fact that you are able to convey the information in a comfortable way that lets them feel safe when asking questions or trying to grasp whatever the concept may be. Interestingly, you have this really unique task of taking challenging subjects like biology and chemistry and making these subjects more accessible or relatable to students who may feel otherwise intimidated.

That’s right, and I think a great example of that in action is when I teach the chemistry course that is not for STEM majors but is meant for mostly nursing majors or others who are interested. Many may have the question of why does this affect my life. People think chemistry is hard and has no relation to their life. I try my best to convey that this isn’t just this isolated topic, but every single thing that you can think of or are even touching right now involves some type of chemical reaction that has occurred. When you use your cell phone, you don’t think, “Oh my gosh, there is so much chemistry in this cell phone,” but there really is! If you’re not a science student, that’s sometimes very difficult to see. One of the most important parts of my job is making what I am teaching relevant to everything, and that’s the great thing about chemistry: it’s so interdisciplinary! Not just research-wise, but even ethical implications of some chemistry-related discoveries can affect your daily life.

I remember taking chemistry freshman year with Dr. Eubank, and one of the takeaways I took from that course related to the incredible ways in which chemistry is involved in so many aspects of our everyday life. Speaking of Dr. Eubank, what has it been like working with the other members of the faculty?

My department has been really awesome. I love being part of a diverse chemistry department that has two black women, a Peruvian woman, two Asian men, and three white men as part of our team, and it gives us this opportunity to show students that chemistry and science in general is not this broad stroke of what science is portrayed as. They can see themselves in our position, even if that may not have been how they were conditioned to think. I feel as though students come here knowing that this is the environment that you are going to get that allows you to flourish, and I have seen it since I have been here. This is not typical of how STEM is represented across academia. There’s all types of research on why this happens, but one of the major reasons for this is that students enter the classrooms and they don’t see anyone who represents them at all. Therefore, women and minorities tend to not stay because they do not feel as if they have the type of support that they actually need. It’s been pretty evident that FSC values that diversity to be able to recruit and retain professors like myself. It shows their commitment to diversity and hopefully that trickles down to the student body.

That’s a really excellent point! At my high school, my biology and chemistry teachers were all white men, and it’s so great seeing more representation on the collegiate level. I know I have asked you many in-depth questions, but I would love to get to know more about Dr. Shelby as a holistic person too! What do you like to do outside of FSC? Do you have any other hobbies?

Dr. Shelby working with students.
Dr. Shameka Shelby working with students.

Most of my world revolves around spending time with my family! It’s me, my husband, and our nine-year-old boy, and he loves playing video games. We love having different family outings outside, but almost everytime we do something together, it has to be competitive! We will go to the arcade or do some putt-putt golf, but I really love playing video games like Super Smash Bros. with my kid actually!

Dr. Shelby! That’s so funny to me! See, you know how to relate to students-- you’re playing the same games as we are! What’s your default character on Super Smash Bros.?

Mine is Marth! I used to play as Peach all the time, but she does not have the best capabilities in-game, and I play to win, so Marth is definitely my choice.

Are there any other types of funny poorly-known facts about you that you want to share?

I love to watch reality tv! I love “Real Housewives.” I am very particular about “Real Housewives of Atlanta!” I have just gotten into this one over winter break, but I love “Love It, Or List It.” Watching the befores and afters just makes me laugh.

Dr. Shelby, you have to let me know when these shows come on! Next thing you know, a chemistry study session could break out into a “Bachelor” viewing party! Maybe the values espoused in those shows are not the same as those enshrined in Florida Southern’s Cornerstone values, but that is something that I actually wanted to ask you about. Part of this interview series is analyzing how the values integral to the Cornerstone, particularly integrity, plays into the structure of the Florida Southern community, especially across our faculty. What does integrity mean to you, and how do you try and implement integrity in and outside of Florida Southern?

When I think about integrity, I think about collegiality. In terms of making students feel welcomed and wanted, we do a great job of incorporating that into what we do here in what I have seen. Even in thinking about how we approach advising, teaching, and whatever else, the community is so connected: nothing is isolated. Everyone is in agreement at FSC in this larger idea of what we think students really should get and receive from their education here.

I also think leading by example is so important. Even though I have my antics, I hope my behavior is always that of which should be portrayed to students, faculty, staff, and administration and that students can see how we all behave and interact with each other. I think that also makes us a much stronger community.

Where do you see yourself in ten years and what goals/ambitions do you have?

First, I would say that I expect my teaching to have evolved. I still want to be able to connect to students of that time. We are going to have very different students who are going to be there at that time, so I hope that I will have kept current enough to be able to relate with them as well and that there’s not this disconnect.

Professionally, I would definitely say doing something with more responsibility but still thinking about the research side. And of course, a continued contribution to my field would be great through maybe some patents and even more publications. My primary objective of doing research here is to be able to give students the amazing experiences that they can take away from their education here. I would love to give students more opportunities to get published or to present at national conferences. Ten years from now, I will have had so many more students grow through the ranks, and I will be able to watch them be able to live their dreams, and hopefully I will be able to be a part in that.

Interview conducted by Mark Haver, a junior from Ellicott City, Maryland, majoring in Environmental Studies, Marine Biology, Political Science, and Political Communications.