Recorded: 06 Sep 2001
Let me start by saying [that] I’m at a point in my life where I want to talk about this. I spent—I’m forty-three years old—I spent forty-two years not being able to talk about this. Because it’s hard. But I have small children now and I think about what their lives are going to be like and I realize that if their Dad doesn’t talk with them or others about what his experience is, there’s no basis for changing it. So I think I’m passed the point—when I was younger as a graduate student, I was uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable because of knowing what people might think about me because I was black. I was always with a really good group—a good family, but it wasn’t my family often—my laboratory, for instance—it would be the things outside of my family. When we would go out as a group say in the lab and interact in a different environment, I didn’t get the same kind of responses as they would get. Over the years, I think I just sort of got used to it. I mean I can give you an example. This is absolutely 100 percent predictable. It has always happened in my career and I’m just waiting for the day that it doesn’t. I’ve had three sightings since I’ve been here. When I go to meetings and it doesn’t matter if I am giving a poster, giving a talk, I can even give a talk at the podium—at the main…when I’m done, people come up to and they always ask me the same question.
“Whose lab do you work in?” It never occurs to them that I am the head of the lab. I’ve been out at places where my students who—I guess my lab is probably more diverse than many, but I have white students in my lab as well. And I’ve been out at places where the two of us are standing at a poster and the assumption has been that my young students—20 and I’m 40-something—that they must be the P.I. and I’m the student. So this kind of thing can just, over time, just wear you down. It becomes the kind of thing where I have to say I reached the point—and I’ve really have just in the past year just because I don’t know, I’m thinking more about this. I have recovered myself. I mean I really have recovered what I was like when I left home from Tennessee at 18—thinking I could go out and do science, become a scientist of the highest caliber. I’d lost that someplace along the way, I think, just because of all these things happening all the time. But I’ve gotten to the point where I didn’t like to go to meetings because I felt so isolated at the meetings. Especially not go to a meeting if I didn’t propose to go with someone that I knew. So meetings have always been really hard. And this meeting I’m really passed this, I really am because I’m with my family. I mean I’m here with people who I know how they think about me. The fact that three people that I do not know have already asked me whose lab I work in isn’t such a big deal here. So there’s that part of it. Of course there are other things in scientific careers, issues of promotion. Right now I’m at MIT. I’m waiting to be promoted. As I say to my wife, I’m the most experienced assistant professor there. I don’t think my case is being handled expeditiously. I cannot separate in my mind that away from my race. And that is one of the hardest things, I think, about being a member of—being an African-American, being someone of African heritage here in the United State
James Sherley is a scientist on the forefront of adult stem-cell research. He earned his B.A. from Harvard University and his M.D./Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology (BCMB Program) from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
He was a Principal Investigator in the Division of Medical Science at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and is currently a Principal Investigator at the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health at MIT. His present research is in integrated studies in somatic stem cell kinetics.
Sherley was honored as a Pew Scholar in Biomedical Science in 1993, and in 2001 became a Pew Science and Society Institute Fellow.