November Research Spotlight on Shantá D. Hinton, Ph.D.

S. Hinton larger

Tell us about your current career position.  
I am currently enjoying my last month of a year-long sabbatical to return as an Associate professor in the Biology department at the College of William and Mary. William and Mary is a primary undergraduate research university that provides an excellent and unique education by offering the best of both worlds. It blends the one-on-one faculty contact and mentoring associated with a small school with the faculty expertise and research opportunities typical of research intensive institutions. Simultaneously it offers me the best of both worlds: to be a scholar at the bench, while integrating my teaching to introduce and engage novices in research experiences that often produce educated scientists. These inseparable teaching and research experiences are great tools to engage students in my research program. My research investigates the role of a particular protein we initially thought was just a “dead” enzyme as a regulator in signal transduction cascades (cellular communication).

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
This is a complicated question for me to address. My matriculation as a student at a primarily majority institution, PMI, University at North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Historically Black College University, HBCU, Howard University, as well as serving as faculty at both an HBCU and PMI, provided various opportunities to develop strengths that allowed me to reach my current position. If pressed to point out a key decision and experience that allowed me to obtain tenure at the College of William and Mary, it would be choosing my post- doctoral position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This decision challenged me and shaped my career in the best way. I trained as a cell and developmental biologist as a doctoral student; I was thrust into a hard-core biochemical lab as a postdoctoral fellow. And the most important thing happened to me during a lab meeting. My PI stated, “This is my standard for a journal publication, nothing below this. Each of you should aim for this or higher to publish from this lab.” I recall smiling inside because for the first time expectations for me (beyond my family) at a PMI institution were the same as any other gender, nationality, ethnicity, etc. No excuses, it was time to complete the task and soar!

How did you first become interested in science? 
My first interest in science came through my late maternal grandfather, Jesse Hinton, Sr. Sitting on the steps or working in the garden with my cousin and me when we were children. He explained the concept of evolution of frogs and snakes. In particular, I was fascinated with the concept that snakes had legs, but supposedly lost them through evolution. Because I am afraid of snakes, and would not touch them (except helping a late dear friend who was a herpetologist), time or books would have to prove grandpa’s story. Of course, I was absolutely delighted about the article EVOLUTION. A four-legged snake from the Early Cretaceous of Gondwana. Science (2015) 349; 416-19. Grandpa, who completed the tenth grade, had great wisdom; his story was confirmed, and it brought back great memories of my initial introduction to the boundless wonders of science.

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
A past failure that was critical to my path happened in the social sciences not the life sciences. I failed my very first (1 out of 3) oral exam in my tenth grade History course. I’ve learned first- hand that the only way a person truly deciphers and applies knowledge is by actively being involved in the learning process. My tenth grade History teacher taught me this. His class stills ranks as the most terrifying, engaging, and invigorating experience I’ve participated in throughout my academic matriculation. The first five minutes of class he was a drill sergeant, orally quizzing students on the material taught previously within the class, with only 15 seconds to understand and address the question. The timer buzzed, and I was declared as “HINTON YOU’RE OUT! Your grade is a 50.” Needless to say, no one likes to be embarrassed. So I spent numerous hours learning the material and creating questions that I might be asked to ensure the “buzz” was never associated with my name again. Furthermore, all students in the class did the same, creating such an enjoyable class, that we ran from the cafeteria to attend it. We were competing to receive the best time in answering a question. My initial failed experience in this course forced me to learn to read and study to synthesize information to formulate new questions and/or hypotheses-which are so critical as a scientist. It also taught me that failing is a necessary part of the journey of achieving success. Therefore, when I experience failure, the next day, I start executing an action plan to develop the failure into a success. When this is not possible, I release the failure and move forward. In essence, I utilize my failures as a platform to set and achieve higher goals. I am sure this is a relief to those who endured the initial venting about my failure, such as my family, best friend, and mentors. In addition, I have a rule never to take a failure as a personal assault, even when it may be. This is challenging, but it is my rule, so I have to work through it. Lastly, my family taught me at a young age that the best way to defeat failure or an enemy is to be successful-which means you have to move forward and progress. I am the sole person responsible for my actions.

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
Believe in yourself beyond your knowledge and skills; envision yourselves beyond your present status. There will be moments where you are the only one who believe in yourself. Pursue science because of a genuine interest, while being very careful of the appearance that it is a benefit or an advantage for someone like you in the sciences. Align yourselves with mentors who will tell you the truth, even if it may alter (hopefully only for a brief moment) the relationship. Learn your weaknesses and do not be afraid to share with your mentors, and ask their help to change these weaknesses into strengths. Understand that paying it forward, which is very important, doesn’t mean that you are obligated to carry everything on your back or alone. Also, don’t be afraid to evolve. Lastly, stay focused on your goals, while being flexible, constantly reminding yourself why you like science, and enjoying the scientific process.

What are your hobbies?
I am an avid cross fitter, which helps with stress. In addition, I love to attend comedy shows and plays, especially Broadway. Laughter and music always heals my soul and helps me cope with a failure.

What was the last book you read?
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Ironically I stopped reading Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle by Kristin Green to read Hidden Figures for an event at my institution. Therefore, I appreciated when Hidden Figures referenced the events that happened in Prince Edward County. I plan to resume reading Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle very soon.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, mentors, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you.
My parents (Larry D. Petway and Mamie L. Hinton) and maternal grandparents (the late Jesse Hinton, Sr, and the late Mamie R. Hinton). As a first generation college student, it was important to have love and structure. These heroes provided more than that; they made important sacrifices and “preached” the value of an education. They made a conscious decision (along with my aunts and uncles who decided not to attend college) to invest in me becoming the first in the family to graduate from college. Although they didn’t understand the process, they worked hard as a team and spoke it into existence. I am grateful that they all lived to see me obtain a Ph.D. My research program is based on the love, structure, honesty, and directness that my heroes provided for me; this model has served me well as a mentor.

What is it that keeps you working hard every day?
My curiosity, always learning, and choosing the correct discipline; I like pursuing edgy projects. I am fortunate to investigate a field of enzymes (protein tyrosine phosphatases) that will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. More importantly, I am absolutely thrilled to investigate a unique catalytically inactive member (MK-STYX) of this field whose prototype was named with the allusion of the Greek mythology river, STYX: the river of the dead. I loved reading Greek mythology as a teenager and still watch movies pertaining to Greek mythology. It is absolutely an honor to introduce undergraduates and Master’s students to the joys of research and co-author manuscripts with them within in a field that is in its infancy. On my worst day, knowing that I can walk into my lab full of vibrant, intelligent, creative, and eager students who may be playing music (while being productive) or introducing me to a new slang such as “rekt,” while keeping score of their assailants on the white board will make me smile. The greatest joy that keeps me going is that they develop into these amazing young scientists, the majority of whom enter doctoral programs. They are the ones who are cited as first authors on the papers in the field; that is an amazing legacy for us. Lastly, it is the fact that I am still able to be at the bench working along with them. I haven’t had to sacrifice and give up my love of the bench, at least not yet. This has truly enriched my students’ and my life.