Profiles / Women in STEM

Dr. Shelley Ann des Etages

The Power to Create: From Medicine to Microbiology


Dr. Shelley Ann des Etages
Senior Principal Scientist, Pfizer

I am asked many times how I go about finding new treatments? We can start two ways. One way is to start with a disease. Let’s say we want to think about transplant rejection. You try to think about what’s happening in the body, in your cells at the molecular level, that’s causing your body to say, “Yes, I need this organ, but I did not make it. It’s not mine, and I want this foreign material out of here.” And you think about what are the proteins that are at work? Why are they doing that? Are there any proteins whose functions I can modify or change such that they don’t work to reject this organ? So you start brainstorming. You’re coming up with ideas, what might be happening. You’re looking at what’s known and trying to think about what are the points at which I can go to try to alter this to try to figure it out? That’s where the basic process actually begins.

More About Shelley

Dr. Shelley Ann des Etages was born in Marabella in Trinidad and Tobago, the island nation in the southern Caribbean. Her mom was an elementary school teacher, her dad a safety supervisor at a chemical plant. She has a brother who’s now a physician, and three sisters, an attorney, an actuary, and an undergraduate at Drexel University. Dr. des Etages immigrated to the United States in 1986 and received her bachelor’s of science in biology from Pace University and a Ph.D. at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Now a senior principal scientist at Pfizer’s Global Research & Development headquarters in Groton, Connecticut, Dr. des Etages seeks to understand the mechanisms of disease and cellular processes, using molecular and cellular biology. This allows her to assist in the identification of potential drug targets and biomarkers that help validate the effectiveness of new drug candidates in treating disease.

Outside of the laboratory, she regularly participates in educational outreach in the local schools through Career Day, tutoring, science demonstrations and Junior Achievement programs. Dr. des Etages is also a supporter of Writers Block Ink, an organization that helps instill drive in young people through creative pursuits. Additionally, she enjoys photography, painting, and gardening, and even plays a little piano.

We go about identifying those points and I’ll stay with the transplant rejection example. This was an idea that one of our researchers in immunology came up with. Now, he saw a paper published about SCID. SCID is an acronym for Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Most people know it as “Bubble Boy Disease”; two bubble boy movies, John Travolta in the seventies and the more recent one.

Basically what’s happening is that the immune system is not functioning. And there was a paper published about mice that had the SCID disease. The idea was that if your immune system is what’s at work when you’re rejecting an organ, then you have a disease where the immune system is not working. And we found out, because of this paper they identified a particular protein that wasn’t functioning properly in those animals. So based on just what we call the phenotype, the symptoms of that disease, they were able to make a link between that protein and that function. So he thought, “Can we alter that protein’s function in patients who might be receiving transplants to see if we can help them keep their transplanted organs healthier and for a longer period of time? So that’s one way, an example where that came about. It’s the combination of finding out what’s known and thinking about what’s known in new ways. There’s an element of creativity. You go, “What if?” And what comes after is the light bulb. Like, what if we can do that?

One of my coolest moments

The thing I remember the most is we did several experiments with cell lines. You take the blood cells out and you culture them in a dish and you work with them. We had done four different experiments, two in vivo, two in vitro. And I’d analyzed that data, and I’d looked in the literature and looked at genes that change when people are rejecting organs and looking at all these test molecules that we had. There was this convergence where a couple of genes that we saw in all of our models had changed.

And when I looked in the literature, they were changing in the opposite direction. So in the transplant scenario, their expression level was going up, and in our models with our test drugs the expression level was going down. That was a very exciting moment, because I thought, “This is really cool! I think I have something!” And I got on the phone, and I called my colleague over in the therapeutic area. “I think I have something. I’ve got something! This looks very promising. This looks really good. We’ve got to test it.” And I think that was a very exciting moment.

Your patience is a virtue

When you are in a situation where things aren’t working, such as the times when you look at some data and you’re just like, “I’m not sure what this means. It doesn’t make any sense. Did my experiment work?” If your controls worked, then you have to accept the fact that the hypothesis you were testing was just wrong or you don’t have, with the approach you used, with the platform that you used, you just don’t have the capability to answer the question that you want to ask. Those can be difficult times. Those can be trying times. I remember, it’s called research, you re-search it. You go back and do it again. You go back and try a different approach. You go back and you turn it around and you take it apart and figure out what went down.

Science and Research – are creative processes

I don’t think a lot of the public understands research. I think research in general is not well understood. I think pharmaceutical research is also not well understood. It’s a creative process, and I think a lot of the public doesn’t see science as creative. But science is very creative, because you keep saying, “What about this? What about this? What if we try this? What if we try that?”

There’s so many times when folks come together doing research, and it’s brainstorming. Everyone is coming up with ideas, and then you’re looking at the ideas and asking the questions. Which ones make sense? Which ones don’t? Which ones are doable? Which ones are not doable? Because you take all of their creative impulses in the scientific arena and you pull them together. And then you say, “Where are we with the technology today? What can we do?” And then are you going to go develop the technology if it doesn’t exist? Or are you going to work within the scope of the technology that you have available? So I think it is an exciting process.

I share with young people that they must learn what skills they’re good at because it will help them with whichever area of expertise they will pursue in the S.T.E.M. majors. I think that I work well with others. I’m one of five siblings, and I’m one of a generation of 28 cousins. And I’m the eldest girl in that generation of 28 cousins, so when it comes to pulling folks together and working well together with a vast array of personalities, backgrounds, experiences, that’s something I draw on and I bring to work as a skill.

When we’re sitting down with a team. We’ve got the statistician. We’ve got the computational biologist. We’ve got the chemist. We’ve got the TA biologist who specializes in a disease area. We’ve got the folks who specialize in looking at how the body processes drugs. It’s an array of different backgrounds, and to be able to work with that group and ask, “What are the key important things we need to know from your expertise and your perspective?” And can we really communicate clearly to each other what are the important factors and why we need to take different aspects and ideas into account? We then can come together to have this one product, this experiment, these pearls that we bring together and say, “Okay, we’re going to test this, get an answer. Based on that answer, Ivy can do this. Sue can do that. Becky can do this. Tom can do that.” And we can all move forward.

Aspirations of Becoming a Scientist

So for anyone who wants to become a research scientist I would say, nurture your questioning spirit, if you will. Because it’s all about asking questions. It’s all about really thinking and critically thinking about information. So I would say nurture those skills. Go volunteer in the lab to do research at an academic institution and get a feel for it.

Because they’re the technical skills that you want to learn and set up as a basis, you also want to think about processing the data, processing information, asking questions about what’s known, what’s not known? What’s understood, what’s not understood? How can I approach this? Feed yourself. There are so many places to get information. You’ve got the science journals, the nature journals. Those are tough to read as a high-schooler, but you’ve got chronicles of science education. You’ve got all these web sites that you can go to and just collect information. If there’s something that you’ve been curious about, find out more. Dig into the scientific questions you have in your own life. Just jump in and dig in.

As a female scientist I would say that I’m cognizant of the fact that there aren’t as many female scientists as there are male scientists. I’ve seen it as I’ve progressed in my scientific career. When I was in graduate school, we were about 50-50. And then I got to my post-doc and the number dipped a bit. And then I started working and I’m like, where are all the women? Where’d they go? So you do notice. You are sometimes the only woman in the room. Have I been treated differently because of it? I have not, for the most part, experienced differential treatment because of it. I am simply cognizant of the fact that many times I look around the room and I’m like, okay, I’m the only female. We need to get more women in this area.

One way we can address as to how to bring more women into science I think are more flexible work options. And the reason I say that is I look at my class from graduate school. Where’s my class? And of the women in my class, let me think, one went to a small biotech firm and kept working. Two took five to six years out to raise their kids. One actually went to medical school after graduate school, decided she didn’t want to do research at all and went off to medical school. So she’s still around. And then another stayed in the industry, stayed doing research, but switched to non-lab bench, more literature based research. But the ones who stopped invariably stopped for family obligations.

So you’ve got to wonder, what if they don’t have to put their careers completely, totally on hold because they want to be with their kids all day. With three kids it doesn’t make sense to keep working. You’re just doing an even exchange with your daycare costs. So what if you don’t have to do that? What if you can work part time for X number of years, is that feasible? Is that doable? It really depends a lot on the role, because some roles lend themselves better to being part time, or even job sharing, than others. But if you had a scenario where you can pause, hit a pause button, and then come back and integrate or stay in touch while you’re on pause. That may help. And I don’t know that those are the only factors, that I cited, it’s just if I look within my own circle of friends who trained in research as well, that’s where they are.

Creativity is in so many different aspects of my life. My mom actually trained to teach art and craft as a teacher. That was her specialty area, and so we learned a lot of crafts at home.



Book Currently Reading

The last book I completed was The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. , I had heard about that book before and just wanted something completely different to read. It was cold, that ending was very cold. I had heard a lot about Sister Souljah and never read any of her work, so I was going on a break and I thought, "Let me grab a book to read that I've heard good things about but haven't read the author before." Audacity of Hope, I chose it because I actually heard Barack Obama speak at an event last year, and I thought he had some interesting things to say.