When Lucy Shapiro discovered her true passion

After a career packed with discoveries, the developmental biologist has turned her attention to the threat of emerging infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance.

- By Becky Bach

Lucy Shapiro

Fasten your seatbelt: Developmental biology professor Lucy Shapiro, PhD, is driving, and we’re zooming through her achievement-packed 40-year career in less than an hour.

Speaking Jan. 13 as part of the “What Matters to Me and Why” series hosted by the Stanford Office for Religious Life, Shapiro, who holds the Virginia and D. K. Ludwig Professorship, said the topic prompted her to ponder why she was so passionate about the world of molecules and cells, a world invisible to most people.

To figure it out, Shapiro said she had to think back to when she was 13, applying for high schools. After consulting with her parents, Shapiro decided to apply for one of New York City’s elite public schools that focused on art and music. Unbeknownst to her parents, however, she decided she wasn’t going to take the exam in music as planned. Instead, she checked out a book on drawing from the library, taught herself to draw and passed the entrance exam by producing a portfolio of art.

“That was really a defining moment. I learned I could change the trajectory of my own life by some action,” she said.

Discovering true love

With that lesson firmly engrained — and with some well-timed assistance from mentors — Shapiro was off. There were detours, of course. Her senior college thesis was on Dante — interesting, Shapiro said, but “it didn’t make my heart sing.”

When prompted to go back to school and take an organic chemistry course, Shapiro discovered her true love.

“It sounds corny, but it was like the sky cleared. [Chemistry] was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was clear that was how my mind worked,” Shapiro said.

She went on to make discoveries about the three-dimensional development of cells, compounds called RNA polymerases and many other aspects of molecular biology that advanced the field, along the way mentoring scores of students and budding scientists. Her awards are numerous and include the prestigious National Medal of Science.

Now, she’s particularly passionate about the threat posed by pathogens, which are rapidly out-evolving the drugs available to rein them in. In response, she has helped found two pharmaceutical companies and is an active public speaker.

During her talk she offered numerous words of wisdom, including:

  • On discoveries: “It’s just indescribable when you discover something. It can be little, it doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It is so exciting.”
  • On spirituality: “To me, science is religion. My love and passion for the scientific world is spiritual.”
  • On her career: “These past 40 years have just been beautiful. I still can’t wait to get into the lab each morning.”

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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