Family History is a Catalyst that Drives Dr. Shelby’s Success

Mar 25, 2022

by FSC Staff

To say that Dr. Shameka Shelby is a role model is an understatement. From the time she was 10 years old, Dr. Shelby had a desire to solve problems, specifically those of a medical nature. Much of her desire stemmed from the fact that she had four maternal aunts diagnosed with sickle cell anemia.

“I have the trait … my mother has the trait as well,” Dr. Shelby said.

One of Dr. Shelby’s aunts passed away from the disease when Shelby was as a child. A second eventually succumbed to the disease.

Witnessing so many female family members suffer with the illness and knowing that she was living with the trait as well, inspired Dr. Shelby to want to both understand and figure out how to defeat the disease. So, she knew at a young age that she wanted to attend medical school.

“I saw them in pain, going to the hospital regularly, and then being in the hospital for extended periods of time,” Dr. Shelby said. “I thought, so wait a minute. Why is this happening, first of all? What is it?”

Being so young, Dr. Shelby didn’t know how she could help.

“At that point I didn’t know enough science actually to even understand what was happening and how it worked,” she said. “I didn’t understand the genetics of it to understand how it was even possible for all of my aunts to have it.”

Wanting to find a cure for sickle cell anemia in her own family continues to be a driving force behind what goes on in her classroom.

She said, “In Introductory Biochemistry I get to teach the kids what it is, that it’s this mutation, and why you get the clumping of the cells that lead to sickle cell crises. And literally it’s just a structural thing that ends up happening as a result of the mutation that makes them [blood cells] look like a sickle.”

After she was enrolled in college, Dr. Shelby became aware of the fact that it was Ph.D.s who found cures for diseases like sickle cell anemia, not M.D.s. This realization helped her decide to pursue her degree in biochemistry. She switched from chemistry pre-med to biochemistry because she became interested in the chemistry of life and how life works.

Dr. Shelby received her B.S. degree in Biochemistry from Xavier University of Louisiana and a Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry from the University of Michigan. She studied degradation of the retina following retinal injury and disease as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center. She is the recipient of various academic awards and fellowships and has several publications to her credit. She joined the Florida Southern College Department of Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Physics as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry in the fall of 2015. She received tenure and was promoted to an Associate professor in May of 2021. She has also co-authored multiple peer-reviewed articles with undergraduate students.

Biology major Brandon Lu ’22 believes Dr. Shelby is doing an excellent job.  He says, “Dr. Shelby has been an inspiration to work with. Her guidance and direction in class and research has made a markedly positive impact on my personal development, both as a student, and as a person.”

Dr. Shelby says that the diversity in the chemistry department is what influenced her decision to join the FSC faculty. The idea of working in a department filled with colleagues from different countries and cultures - Peruvian, Jamaican, Asian, etc. was enticing. She was also excited to join a chemistry department heavily populated with female colleagues.

“Carmen Gauthier, Ph.D., was the chair when I came, and she’s like amazing.” Dr. Shelby said. “It gave me a sense of community.”

Her students feel a similar sense of community; they feel supported. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology major Prasamsa Surapaneni ‘24 says, “She is the most honest and straightforward professor out there and she is extremely knowledgeable and supportive!”

One of Dr. Shelby’s goals is to contribute to her department’s environment in terms of ensuring that there is always representation of underrepresented populations in science.