ACPHS In The News

Panther Profile: Dr. Nicole Shakerley

Dr. Nicole Shakerley in a Panther Profile frame
February 16, 2024

Panther Profiles are Q&A interviews that highlight Panthers of all stripes -- students, faculty, staff, alum, board members and anyone else in the campus community.

Assistant Professor Nicole Shakerley directs bachelor’s degree programs in Biomedical Technology and in Health Sciences, and was instrumental in developing the latter program, which officially launches in Fall 2024. She joined ACPHS in 2015 as a postdoctoral fellow, then quickly moved into faculty positions. She shared her own journey to becoming a scientist and how that has informed the way she relates to students.

You have a tattoo that demonstrates your commitment to science. Tell us about that.

I have a giant DNA tattoo on my leg. It's part of one of the genes, catalase, that I worked on as a student. It gives me some cred with students: I have nerdy tattoos. When they get nerdy tattoos, they are excited to show me. I advocate for the students to think about it before getting one. Think about where it's going to go. Could you hide it if necessary?

That DNA tattoo is an evolution itself. It started as a small tattoo on the top of my foot when I was starting my bachelor’s. I was working on science, I identified as a scientist, and I am still proud of that. As I finished my PhD, the tattoo evolved into what it is today – there I go, adding in science.

Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist and teacher?

Currently, I don't know how to not science or not teach. My family will talk about something, and out of habit, I jump into explaining why that happened, or how it worked. I closely identify with Ms. Frizzle (from the Magic School Bus TV series) and her passion for making science fun. I have several Ms. Frizzle-style dresses, and I try to match them with the topic of the day. Sometimes, students are even upset when I don’t have a matching outfit.

When I graduated high school, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. Slightly similar, I suppose? Research skills, argumentative, making your case as we do in science. But I really didn't love history and English, and I'm not sure why my brain thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I transitioned to the science path and felt like I found my place.

My graduate work was at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, part of SUNY (the State University of New York). We did a lot of outreach activities with younger students, and that's when I figured out that I loved teaching science and was pretty good at it, even though I identify as an introvert.

Students tell us they relate to you and admire you. Why do you think that’s the case?

Especially in the age of the Internet and social media, our students see people portray a perfect path toward their desired profession: I'm taking these steps, and I'm getting what I want, and everything's happy. They're not going to post the picture of themselves looking frazzled and screaming at their organic chemistry homework. But I frequently share with students that this career was not my original path, and that struggle is part of the journey. When I relate with students, I try to find the balance of being the mentor, the teacher, and also being real – not sugarcoating things – while making sure to acknowledge the wins, big or small.

You’re also known for your commitment to each individual learner. How do you show that?

There are many places in life where people feel like they’re not supposed to be there. I try very hard to make sure one of those places is not my classroom.

I try to acknowledge the hard work and improvements I see in students whenever I can. Sometimes, I go out of my way to say, hey, I saw that; keep it up! Letting students know that we see them and see the work they are putting in helps motivate them.

Sometimes, you’re just helping students build confidence. As a health sciences campus – I am part of this group, so I think I can say it – those with nerdy tendencies don’t tend to have the most confidence. I love watching students grow from their first year when I meet them in biology class to the amazing leaders they are when they walk across the stage at graduation.

You sometimes have office hours in the Panthers Den, a gathering place for students. Why?

I don't tend to hold office hours in my office because more than one student shows up, and suddenly, we don’t fit anymore.  So, I hang out in the Panthers Den, and students can stop by. Even if they're not my current students, sometimes they just want to chat or say, “I have this issue and I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do.” And then, I am happy to help guide them in the right direction.

You baked your sensibility for individual needs into the new Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences program. How did you do that?

Each student is unique. I knew we couldn't have a cookie-cutter program where all the students are going to do the same thing to try to get to incredibly varied health professions. Having a “choose-your-own-adventure” Health Sciences program allows us to guide students as they choose courses that will support their hoped-for careers. That's going to help build their confidence and also help them build a stronger application portfolio.

I make an individualized curricular grid for every single student. It's a fluid document based on their academic performance and career goals. We want to make sure they are academically successful and also can easily see how their current trajectory could lead to several possible careers. My advising mantra is to leave all doors open for possibilities until we have to close them.

Is this BSHS program something you wished you had when you entered college?

I was always good at math and science. But for some reason I didn't initially go down that path. Maybe that was because I didn't know what it would look like. I love my career and the journey I took to get here. But if someone had said, these are your options and this is what it looks like, maybe I would have made different decisions and found my path earlier.