Sept. 23, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 2
Students Integral to Kelley's Research
First in a series of profiles on outstanding Boston College researchers
Students are central to Shana Kelley's success. The assistant professor of chemistry who has been named one of the world's Top Young Innovators by Technology Review [see separate story] relies not only on graduate assistants to aid her research into DNA detection, but undergraduates, too.
Three undergraduates currently work alongside 10 graduate students in her laboratory. Of six previous undergraduate research assistants she's had in her five years at BC, two have gone on to medical school - another is applying - and three have entered doctoral programs. Half the 10 papers her group has published in five years have been co-authored by undergraduates.
"Because of the demands of running a research laboratory and teaching, I can't carry out any of my ideas by myself," said Kelley, whose research into the use of electrical currents to detect DNA is seen speeding genetic testing useful to medical diagnoses.
"The students who come and work with me are so precious, because they're the ones who make the science happen. So I am dedicated to serving as a resource and mentor for them. Watching them become accomplished scientists is incredibly fulfilling."
The chemist who runs road races in her spare time - and who nearly opted for business instead of science as her chosen field - is noted for the energy she brings to the laboratory.
"I can't help but be influenced by Shana's extreme excitement," said Camille Asher '05, an undergraduate research assistant who is considering medical or graduate school, and describes the Kelley lab as a "very interactive" place fueled by "good intellectual conversation.
"We all group together every week and discuss our results," said Asher. "She's incredibly involved in our research."
Third-year graduate student Lisa Wittenhagen compared her boss to a chess champion who can play 100 games at once. "I'm on game 1, she's on 99," the aspiring biotech researcher said, with a smile. "We're not sure how she keeps everything straight in her mind."
Kelley benefited similarly from teachers who took an interest in her own potential.
After graduating from high school, in Montclair, NJ, where her interest in chemistry had been sparked by a "fantastic" teacher in the subject, she says, she took a job as a bank teller for a few years because she was uncertain about choosing a focus for her college studies.
She enrolled at Seton Hall University with the idea of studying business, but a freshman advisor, noting her transcripts, suggested she focus on science.
"Thank goodness someone was paying attention," said Kelley, who would go on to earn a PhD in chemistry from Cal Tech, found a biotech company, and win distinguished early-career awards as a member of the faculty at Boston College.
"I'm where I am today because a freshman advisory dean at Seton Hall suggested I pursue chemistry," she said. "It's really important I listen to the undergraduates I work with, and help guide them towards a career that excites them and is suited to their talents and interests. I feel so fortunate to have found a career that I am passionate about. Science is not work for me."
Fifth-year graduate student Brad Taft, who hopes to enter science journalism, said: "It makes it a lot easier to put in all the work you do when you know how excited Shana is about everything you're doing."
A former undergraduate research assistant, Rodrigo Ortiz Meoz '03, currently a second-year graduate student in the program in molecular biophysics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, was among the first crop of scientists trained by Kelley.
"One thing about my experience with Shana that I think has really helped me along in graduate school," he said, "is that even though I was an undergrad, I was treated very much like a graduate student, with all the benefits, and responsibilities, that come with the title.
"I can honestly say that if it weren't for Shana, I would not be doing what I am doing today. She gave me a chance in her lab when she had no obligation to, and while I am grateful for all the science I learned, I am more grateful for the guidance she provided me during my years at BC."
-Mark Sullivan •