James L. Sherley

Born: January 19, 1958 | Memphis, TN, US
Photograph of James L. Sherley

James L. Sherley was born in Memphis, Tennessee. As a child, he liked performing experiments and soon decided he wanted to be a microbiologist. Though he was high school valedictorian, the title was given to the Caucasian salutatorian instead. As the listed salutatorian, he still gave the valediction because the true salutatorian insisted. At Harvard, Sherley joined Mark Ptashne's lab, where he worked on lambda phage and tumor repression. Interested in studying cancer, he joined the MD/PhD program at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied thymidine kinase in Thomas J. Kelly's lab. After a postdoc at Princeton, he became an associate member at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, where he stayed for seven years before joining the faculty of MIT.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0497
No. of pages: 133
Minutes: 500

Interview Sessions

Andrea R. Maestrejuan
20, 23 and 24 November 1998
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

James L. Sherley was born in Memphis, Tennessee, one of five children. His parents had been sharecroppers in a small town in Mississippi, but they moved to the Memphis area so that Sherley's father could become a worker in concrete; he worked his way up to supervisor and is now safety officer for DuPont. He also became a Baptist minister at about the time James was leaving for college. Sherley's mother's family gradually settled in the neighborhood, too, but Sherley's father's family stayed in Mississippi. As far back as he can remember, Sherley wanted to be a scientist; and he and one of his brothers were always performing experiments (making gunpowder, for example) in the backyard. In junior high school he decided he wanted to be a microbiologist. He attended a high school for college-bound students, to which he had to be bused; there an AP biology class solidified his desire to be a microbiologist and to go to Harvard. Some of his teachers encouraged him to apply elsewhere as well, but he was determined to go to Harvard. He had always done well in school, too; but though he was valedictorian of his high school, the administration thought it inappropriate that he give the commencement address (he is African-American) and asked the salutatorian (she is Caucasian) to do so instead.

At Harvard Sherley joined Alfred Loeblich's laboratory, working at first with algae. He went to Mark Ptashne's lab when Loeblich moved to the University of Houston. There he learned microbiology, worked on lambda phage, and took a course in tumor repression that pushed him into the study of cancer. He was advised that fully to realize his ambition to study cancer he should get an MD/PhD, so, although it was late in his undergraduate career, he became pre-med and eventually was accepted for the MD/PhD program at Johns Hopkins University, where he began his study of thymidine kinase in Thomas J. Kelly's lab. After receiving his MD and PhD, he took a postdoc at Princeton University, working in Arnold Levine's lab. His studies included T antigen and p53 antioncogene. His association with Levine's lab was not harmonious, and he accepted an associate membership in the Department of Molecular Oncology at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, where he stayed for seven years before running out of funding. From there he moved to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is an assistant professor in the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health today.

Sherley is married to Marion Cunningham and has two young daughters. He continues to publish his work; to balance family life and work; and to worship God. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1980 Harvard University BA
1988 Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine MD/PhD

Professional Experience

Princeton University

1988 to 1991
Postdoctoral Fellow

Fox Chase Cancer Center

1991 to 1998
Associate Member, Department of Molecular Oncology, Division of Medical Science

Meharry Medical College

1993 to 2000
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1998 to 2000
Assistant Professor, Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health and Center for Environmental Health Sciences


Year(s) Award

National Cancer Institute, National Research Service Award


Paul Ehrlich Award in Basic Science Investigation

1993 to 1997

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years

Family background. Early desire to be a scientist. Influential teachers. Sherley's first experiments and dissections. Sherley's Baptist upbringing and his current religious views. Parental expectations. Race relations in Memphis, Tennessee, Sherley's home town; civil rights movement.

College Years

Events leading to Sherley's admission to Harvard University. Financial hardships there. Siblings' careers. Enters the Alfred R. Loeblich III lab. Racist overtones in an employer's distrust of a letter of recommendation. Sherley's pre-college science preparation. Life as a student at Harvard. Demonstrates that dinoflagellates do not have mating types. Cultivating scientific rigor. Interest in treating cancer. Joins the Mark S. Ptashne lab. Politics of science. Class from Len Bo Chen stimulates Sherley's interest in determining the difference between cancer cells and normal cells. Interviewing at medical schools. Racism; politics of science; scientific and biblical truth. Being a black student at Harvard. Furthering ethnic diversity in science.

Graduate Years

Applying to medical school. MD/PhD program at Johns Hopkins University. Joins Thomas J. Kelly Jr. lab. Decides to conduct research on thymidine kinase. Initial successes in the lab developing an affinity column and using elutriation. Atmosphere in the Kelly lab. Obstacles surrounding Sherley's return to the Kelly lab after a year's absence. Fractionating HeLa cells. Unexpected roadblockswith the thymidine kinase (24TK) project. Kelly's lab's successful in vitro replication of SV40 DNA; Kelly pressures Sherley to transfer to the SV4O project. Sherley's breakthrough on the TK project. Importance of receiving credit for one's scientific work. Competition in science. Ethics. Funding.

Postgraduate Years

Accepts postdoc at Princeton University in the Arnold J. Levine lab. Studies Tantigen and p53. Sherley's difficulties in the Levine lab. Sherley's fellow researchers in the Levine lab. His strained relationship with Levine. Accepts a position at the Fox Chase Cancer Center. More on Sherley's funding. His departure from Fox Chase Cancer Center because of lack of funds. Accepts a position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Sherley's future plans and goals. His research on stem cell division.


About the Interviewer

Andrea R. Maestrejuan