December 5, 2008

Lectureship, award honors pioneer in Pharmacology

Featured Image

Dolores Shockley, Ph.D., center, in the lab with Meharry Medical College students, from left, Patrice Moss, Jessica Gadsden, Tunde Akinyeke and Deacqunita Harris. (photo by Joe Howell)

Lectureship, award honors pioneer in Pharmacology

“She was always thinking a generation ahead,” said Lee Limbird, Ph.D., former Vanderbilt faculty member and currently at Meharry Medical College, about her mentor and friend, Dolores Shockley, Ph.D.

Shockley, professor emeritus at Meharry Medical College, has the distinction of being the first African American woman in the nation to receive a Ph.D. in Pharmacology, from Purdue, and the first to chair a department of Pharmacology at an accredited medical school.

Limbird said Shockley crossed the lines of gender and race in Nashville to bring together young people from two separate institutions and very different backgrounds, all in pursuit of better science.

These are just some of the reasons Limbird and her husband, Tom, decided to endow the Dolores Shockley Lectureship and Award in Pharmacology at Vanderbilt.

Heidi Hamm, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Pharmacology, said the endowment of this bi-annual lectureship recognizes a pioneer. She also said the research award that accompanies the lectureship comes at an important time for young scientists.

“Even before our current economic difficulties, science funding was eroding. Minority students still find it more difficult to continue with their education, so this lectureship will reward and foster mentorship of minority scientists. To remain competitive as a nation, we cannot afford to leave a group of young people behind,” Hamm said.

Limbird, Hamm's predecessor as chair of Pharmacology at Vanderbilt, said Shockley taught her not only how to understand and honor cultural and historical differences between Meharry and Vanderbilt, but also how to partner the two programs in a welcoming way.

“She taught me a great deal about navigating change by modeling patience and clarity — never anger,” Limbird said. “One of her gifts is she brings people together and builds relationships. She does this as naturally as inhaling and exhaling, while other people may need to be more intentional about it.”

Shockley, who is described by many as humble, is revered for progressing in science in the 50s and 60s, when few women, much less African-American women, were able to successfully pursue a science career.

“I never set out to be a first, I just always liked science,” Shockley said. “I wanted to excel and really thought I could contribute to science.”

Her research focused on the chemical compounds to treat stimulant dependency and overdose. But the current times have caused her to think a lot about the contribution she made as a role model.

“After this past election, I wondered if I had done enough to be an activist, because people died for things like this,” Shockley said. “But I know when I traveled to other universities, young people, young black women especially, flocked to me because they might not have been getting encouragement to pursue a career in science. I let them know it could be done.”

While Shockley was the chair of the Department of Pharmacology at Meharry, in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, she worked closely with Limbird to unite students at Meharrry and Vanderbilt.

Limbird said the arrangement made sense. At the time, Vanderbilt Pharmacology focused on the molecular level.

“Lee used to like to say that her students were so focused on the molecular, that they hardly knew what a mouse looked like,” Shockley chuckled.

“So we needed a partner,” Limbird said. “We held monthly student seminars on either side of the street, so not only were Vanderbilt students sharing molecular information, but Meharry students were teaching in-vivo pathways.”

When the students and departments combined their efforts, the results were dramatic. These interactions continue today with a joint Pharmacology scientific retreat each spring that inspires collaboration and continued reciprocal mentoring.

The recipients of the Dolores Shockley Award will be recognized for their involvement in partnerships that foster minority scientist career development. The Vanderbilt Department of Pharmacology will administer the award and will select the speakers for the biannual lectureship, which will begin in May 2009.