You Have The Mind Of An Engineer

Dr. Shellese Cannonier, PhD


Q: What inspired you to get involved in science?

When I was in elementary and junior high school, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I always loved animals and I had a passion for science. I shadowed a veterinarian and worked in the veterinarian's office a couple of days a week but realized that it was not something that I wanted to do as a career, even though I have this love for animals. I excelled in math and science, and my family encouraged me to do research during the summers locally in the Virgin Islands. This was my first taste of research, and I found it very interesting.

My math teacher in college suggested I start doing research during the year more formally, so from there it spiraled into applying to grad school to get my PhD and that's how I ended up at Vanderbilt. I loved the work I did at Vanderbilt; I studied oral cancer and how it invades into the mandible, but I was not satisfied with the work and the effort being filed away somewhere, potentially of use but most likely just another good source of information. I struggled a lot with the actual effects of my work being seen — I wanted it to have a real-life change.

In my last year at Vanderbilt, my dissertation committee told me to find out what I wanted to do with my life. At that point, I knew the things I did not want to do, but I didn't really have a list of what I was passionate about, so I explored a lot of different careers that people with PhD's can enter into. I ended up really loving consulting and working on new topics and solving problems in real-time. It allows you to explore the breadth of information, not just the depth of information. Once I realized that was my passion, I applied to Proactive. Doing this type of research and answering questions allows me to get the real-time satisfaction that I had been missing working in academics. When clients ask questions, we find answers for their problems now. And that made me feel almost more validated. It made me feel like my work was being justified, seeing that it had an effect that I could measure.

A story I will always remember that was so rewarding while I was getting my PhD, was seeing the effects of just telling a young girl what a possible career is and seeing her grab onto it and hold it near and dear to her for her future. I worked in inner-city elementary schools for several years and I just remember these kids — because I was that age once — they have these passions and interests. It was amazing to hear these little people talk about what interests them even when they don't really know why.

I did these science experiments with the teachers to get kids excited about and interested in science, and I remember one of my students' moms was a custodial worker, and she said, "When I grow up I want to be like my mom." She was always a very "stop, assess, and fix" kind of thinker; she worked very methodically, so I told her, "You have the mind of an engineer, because you try to find a way to improve what you're working on." At the end of the class, she left completely convinced that she was going to be an engineer because she thinks like an engineer. She believed that's important and a fun thing to be because she loves science.

I loved it because a lot of times we take the thinking level of kids for granted. It's really at that young age that we can foster that love and that creativity and that passion. If she believes that she can be an engineer because she thinks like an engineer, then she can be an engineer because she thinks like an engineer. Sometimes you just have to tell them that and take it seriously so that they know that you really believe in them. Every time, since, when I would see her after she had moved on to the next grade, she would always remind me that one day she's going to be an engineer because she loves science and she thinks like an engineer.

I told everyone that story for a good two months because it was just so rewarding.


Q: What is your role in the field of science in which you work?

I work as an analyst at Proactive Worldwide. It is a market research and competitive intelligence company. I research information, then interpret, organize, and present it to be used either in the company or for the client that has requested information. I have virtual meetings with my team or with clients and do a lot of work in clinical trials pulling information on trials and trying to make predictions or interpret information from publicly available sources.


Q: Have you ever faced any obstacles because of your gender or your ethnicity?

When I was in grad school I would say that my biggest struggle was my communication. I am a very direct communicator. Colloquially, I don't beat around the bush — I don’t sugarcoat things — and that has gotten me into conflicts with people. This includes people who are my peers as well as people who are career-wise above me.

When I was at Vandy, you had to pass a qualifying exam to be eligible to obtain your PhD. At that time, the qualifying exam was identical to an actual research grant proposal but it's on a subject that your lab doesn't study. The rationale here is that if you can successfully propose a project on a subject that your lab isn't actually working on, then it means that your training is rigorous enough to actually work well in what your lab does work on.

I had my qualifying exam, and I failed my qualifying exam, so I went to my committee chair and was asking for her feedback because I didn't understand why I failed the qualifying exam. There were other people who had done worse than I had, who had passed so I asked, "Why is this justification for me to fail?"

And she told me — she's been in science her whole career, she's a senior scientist, and she's a female so she lived through the harsh stereotypes of being a woman in science — and she told me, "I don’t think you would have had a problem if your committee were made up of men."

I just stared at her because I didn't even understand what she meant. Because my committee was all women. I was like, "What do you mean? What does a guy being on my committee have to do with me not passing my exam?"

Her feedback was that because I am so direct and because I am so blunt and because I speak so confidently, I can be intimidating and I can be viewed as being aggressive. And I looked at her, and I said, "I'm having my qualifying exam with a whole bunch of successful women in science, how am I being intimidating or aggressive?" I was so confused at what was going on.

Her feedback was really proof to me that stereotypes in science exist, and a lot of times we think about the stereotypes as being directed from the superior group, which in science is still older white males. You think about them oppressing other groups when you think about stereotypes, but the truth is people in general perpetuate stereotypes.


Q: Is there anything you want to explore in your field or science in general?

If I had the opportunity to help implement something, it would be to restructure the way basic research and clinical research connect. Right now I work with pharmaceutical companies and other business-based companies, and at the end of the day the goal of the client is to bring in more revenue — and that can mean that patients who would benefit from a new drug or a certain drug, they can get overlooked because there's not enough of them to warrant spending money to push the drug forward or the drug is not bringing in enough money to justify bringing it to trial. Those are some of the conflicts in business, but in academics it's almost the opposite. In academics, the love of research and the want of information is what drives the research forward. I want to connect the two so that basic research is more focused at its early stages to actually help address a problem, and then vice versa that pharmaceutical companies and businesses that push drugs forward in clinical trials, that they're reflecting on the need in the population, not just the revenues that it can provide.

That would be my perfect world if I could bring those two together and make them work together for a greater good.

Dr. Cannonier is an analyst at Proactive Worldwide. She obtained her PhD in Cancer Biology at Vanderbilt University. Born and raised on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, she received her B.S. in Biology at the University of the Virgin Islands. In addition to being an aspiring writer and avid reader, Shellese is a DIYer and self-proclaimed “foodie.” She resides in Nashville, TN, with her husband and their three dogs.

Words: Dr. Shellese Cannonier