GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For first-generation college student Sheldon Lawrence, earning a Ph.D. in plant molecular and cellular biology from the University of Florida means opportunity.
Lawrence joined nearly 350 students graduating with their undergraduate and graduate degrees from the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) on August 10 and 11 in the Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
Lawrence fondly remembers his mother instilling in him the importance of education and the acquisition of knowledge. Growing up in a single-parent home meant money was always tight for the family. College tasks like buying books and doing laundry were often a challenge. Nevertheless, Lawrence persevered through these obstacles.
While working on his bachelor’s degree in biology at Hampton University, Lawrence was a participant in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Pre-Ph.D. Program. The native of Charleston, South Carolina discovered his interest in plant biology and pathology after working in a biotechnology lab under Edison Fowlks, a plant pathologist. Fowlks mentored Lawrence while he completed the pre-Ph.D. program.
The support Fowlks provided Lawrence inspired him to pursue his Ph.D. in a plants-related field. At UF, Lawrence’s research focused on plant stomata function. He studied how the stomata are regulated to help plants defend themselves against bacteria that cause plant disease. During his time at UF, he received a UF Graduate School Funding Award and a National Science Foundation Bridge to the Doctorate fellowship.
“Plants have been around longer than humans,” Lawrence said. “There’s a lot we can learn and have learned from plants. The more we learn about them, the more we learn about ourselves, and that is very exciting to me.”
As a minority in the plant biology field, Lawrence often finds himself to be the only African American in the room at conferences and other professional meetings. Even while working on his Ph.D. program at UF, people mistook him for a maintenance technician or other occupation. He views being the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from the plant molecular and cellular biology program at UF as an opportunity to engage fellow minorities in the sciences.
“This says a lot about his determination, dedication and passion for science,” said Eliana Kampf, academic program specialist for the UF/IFAS plant molecular and cellular biology program. “Because of Sheldon, we were able to recruit more minorities into this STEM field that has very few underrepresented students. We can expect great things from Sheldon as he progresses in his career.”
While at UF, Lawrence served in several leadership capacities through the Black Graduate Student Organization and the Nu Eta Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Through his graduate program and extracurricular activities, Lawrence visited local schools to present his research and share what it takes to earn a Ph.D.
“Whenever I visit schools, it reminds me that the journey is not about me but who I can help,” Lawrence said. “It warms my heart to see [the students’] minds working. The middle and high school students ask more questions about what it takes to get to college, whereas the elementary school students get excited to ask me general questions about my research with plants.”
Lawrence said it is important to nurture students to pursue careers in science, no matter their ethnicity. He said his network of support in the plant molecular and cellular biology program has done this for him and his fellow classmates.
“Eliana Kampf is like the mother of the program,” Lawrence said. “Any time I needed anything, she was there with a personal note or email. My advisor Sixue Chen [UF biology professor] is one of the kindest people I have ever met. His motto is to work harder. He always makes himself available for personal and professional issues. It makes my colleagues and me happy to work with him in the lab.”
After graduation, Lawrence will begin a prestigious Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education (SPIRE) fellowship program funded through the National Institutes of Health to conduct research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He will be working in the chemistry department identifying plant proteins that are useful in the creation of novel medicines.
Lawrence plans to teach at a historically black college or university in North Carolina while conducting postdoctoral research. For his long-term career, he aims to become a university professor in the field of biology.
He encourages future scientists to soak up as much knowledge as they can in school and to be open to new ideas and career paths.
“Be driven by the desire to learn,” Lawrence said. “Explore – don’t be afraid to venture into a new field, because you will be able to apply the knowledge and skills you learn to areas you love. Take advantage of all the opportunities that are presented to you. Enjoy the process and learn from the process. Most importantly, lift others up along the way as you climb the ladder of success.”
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