Recorded: 06 Sep 2001
This has been a good year for it because I’ve been trying to get to the point where I am knowledgeable enough in science now to appreciate—one of may best mentors is Al Knudsen at the Fox Chase Cancer Center. I struggled when I was there with our work on asymmetric cell kinetics. I mean it just was hard. And Al would say to me, “James, you know, everything, all of the really important things done in science started out this way. You should just really try to take a lot strength from realizing that there are two possibilities here. Either you’re completely out to lunch, or you’re onto something really important. Either one of those, this is the reception you get.” He says, “Only time can tell which one you are. And I think…you’re on the right track.” Incredibly supportive man. He still is. I’ve been away from Fox Chase for three years, I still communicate with him. One of the things I do want to say too is that I am—since this is being taped—is that I often as a black student and as a black scientist and as a black faculty member have people say to me in private that they think that I’m really top notch. But they never say it in public. So, they never—in a situation where they have an opportunity to say, this person is—that doesn’t happen with me. Al Knudsen is one of those people who’s done that. You know he didn’t have to but I needed it and he did it. I was leaving Fox Chase, he stood up in front of a whole group of people who were there at my goodbye and he says I was leaving because I couldn’t get funded. The institute wasn’t going to support me. They didn’t want to review me and Al said, “You know. He’s doing the right thing. He’s doing something really important and you all should know that.” That’s the kind of stuff I think—you know I haven’t answered your question yet—what’s kept me going? It’s those moments that keep you going. Most of life is what you get from individuals and I’ve had the good fortune along the way of having met some incredible, extraordinary people, and Knudsen’s definitely one of them. And he gives me hope. I mean I think what I take away from my relationship with Al is I could be hopeful. And I think that as long as you can be hopeful about things being different—I just want to say, I love what I do. I am doing what I was born to do.
I’m just really fortunate that way. And I think that’s another factor because I’m not just doing this because its my job, it’s the only thing—I can’t imagine doing anything other than what I do. And so for all the other stuff that happened, in the end, I love working with my students. I just love being with them. I love them, I love hearing about their discoveries. I tell people that the best thing about being a scientist is those moments when you find out something at that point in time you’re the first one to know it and the only one to know it. I mean it’s just—that’s what I love about this. You get those moments—I mean those moments—people think about, well, you know, the structure of DNA. No, no, its when you know the gel ran right and you see the band and you’re the first to see it and you’re the only one to know it. It happens quite often in science. These moments of discovery! It’s just great now as a mentor watching this process happen with my students.
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.