Shapses, Sue

Areas of Interest: 
Osteoporosis, Obesity, Metabolism, Biochemistry.
My Story: 
Shapses, Sue A.
S. Shapses hard at work!
Science was always a really important in my family growing up. We didn’t realize it at the time; it was never overtly emphasized. My father had a very strong and enthusiastic personality and he was able to instill in all of us a great appreciation for science. He would tell us scary medical stories at night - sometimes they were so creepy I would stop listening and go to bed. Other people had ghost stories; we had medical history stories. It was like having Michael Crichton living in your house with you, and it made medicine and science very exciting to me and my siblings. My father was a dentist, and strangely, many women scientists I have met also have fathers that were/are dentists. My father wanted all of his children to have a profession or a technical skill. He had grown up during the Depression and saw the importance of having a career. My mother was an elementary school teacher, interested in language arts. She helped me with all my writing, and that was not an easy job for her since it was my weakest skill. As much as anyone likes science, a great deal of this field is about communicating ideas through writing and lectures.

I initially wanted to be a dietitian in high school. I worked as a dietitian for almost two years in a hospital, and then I decided to work toward my Masters. I attended Columbia University, where I was inspired by some really interesting scientists. This moved me in the direction of research; where I grew up, not everyone went to college. Many students went to technical schools and learned trades, and going to graduate school was rarely considered. My parents were not so happy when I said I was applying to the PhD program at Columbia U. because I came from a traditional household and starting a family is what they had in mind. However, they eventually adapted and were ultimately very supportive.

Originally for my doctoral work, I was studying malnutrition and how it influenced patients with emphysema. We tested patients with exercise and pulmonary function tests and found that a high lipid diet was the best diet to mitigate their labored breathing. My postdoctoral work at Albert Einstein Medical Center was also in pulmonary physiology but required the examination of critically ill patients. A physician was necessary to do the invasive procedures, and as a result, my independence as a scientist was restricted. Most importantly, I lost my passion for the area of pulmonary research. I started looking for a post-doc that would fit within my skill set, yet broaden my horizons into another discipline. I was offered a position in a very well regarded orthopedic biochemistry lab back at Columbia U. I took the position, yet had to work hard to learn another field. It was interesting since I met scientists and engineers coming from very different points of view and their questions after a seminar were often very different from my own. I learned a great deal. After a couple of years, I was hired by Rutgers University and was able to apply the training I had in surgical metabolism, nutrition, physiology and orthopedics to begin an independent research program. I applied to Rutgers because of its location and its reputable nutrition program. I knew one of the professors here; he was instrumental in convincing me that Rutgers was indeed an excellent school, and that I should be confident that I’ll be able to develop a career here. Overall, the support from the more senior faculty in my Department (for both work and home issues), made a huge difference in my accomplishments.

Shapses, Sue A.
S. Shapses and team celebrating.

My current research involves studying how diet influences bone turnover and quality and is supported by grants provided by the National Institutes of Health, among others. We are interested in hormones that are regulating both obesity and osteoporosis, and how moderate and massive weight loss regulates bone.

Throughout my life, I have had some really great teachers. I had a great H.S. chemistry teacher that encouraged me to continue in the sciences. I also had an English teacher who knew that I struggled with my writing, and worked hard with me to improve my skills. The sciences and math came relatively easy to me, but I labored at writing papers. When I was in the library in college, my friends assumed I was working on my “difficult” math and science classes, but I would spend most of my time writing my English composition papers. In college, I took a management course in the Business school and was the only non-major in the class, as well as the shyest student. The Professor, who happened to be on sabbatical from another program, knew that I was struggling to participate in the classroom discussions. By having patience and encouraging me, and other shy students, to speak up in the classroom, I was able to gain confidence, and also learned a great teaching technique.

During my doctoral work, I had an incredible scientist-mentor who influenced and inspired me, and who continues to inspire me. I felt lucky because I had all these extremely smart people around me. I loved to have role models, whether male or female. In fact, most of my role models were men, especially at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in NY where there were no female professors that I knew of. At the time, the hospital was in a very tough neighborhood in Washington Heights as well, so there were also very few female students or faculty in the medical or doctoral programs.

My biggest challenge has been balancing a family with a full time (and a half!) job. You have to be strong and you have to have people you trust at work and in your home. And a high level of energy helps. When our first child was born, we had Au Pairs live in the house, one was from England, and the next one was from France. Our child was fluent in French from ages 1-3 years with our French Au Pair, and both Au Pairs were wonderful with our children. It was so helpful to have another adult in the house to help with very basic things. I felt very comfortable in the situation because they were young women, looking to both earn money and learn by living in another country, just like many of my students. Also, I made two great friends.

Success can be attributed to many factors, but perseverance and a positive attitude are the most important. During my education, when things became difficult and seemed to take forever, I always kept in mind that ultimately I was going to be thirty years old someday, with or without a degree. Importantly, you have to like learning, be committed, and be confident that you are following the right path; whereas a great husband, kids, colleagues and friends make the road easier.


Transcribed from interview with Christina Leshko.