Eye on CDI: Shaneka Lawson


By Kristini Miles posted 03-19-2015 16:06


This blog features one of the scientists who participated in the SOT Undergraduate Education Program.

Undergraduate Education Program Honoree: 2001

Current Position: US Department of Agriculture Research Plant Physiologist & Adjunct Assistant Professor at Purdue University


2005: BS Biology, Morgan State University

2006: MS Biotechnology with a concentration in Biodefense, the Johns Hopkins University

2011: PhD Molecular Tree Physiology-Genetics, Purdue University

Lawson SS SOT (2) (2).jpgThose who knew Shaneka Lawson at Morgan State University had no doubt that she would achieve a successful career in science. She excelled in every course and showed genuine interest in the many different aspects of the field. Shaneka worked to learn molecular biology methods and techniques working with Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) in the laboratory of Casonya Johnson (former MSU professor, now at Georgia State University) as an undergraduate student and gained a strong foundation of skills required to solve experimental problems.

In 2001, Shaneka received an undergraduate travel award to attend the Society of Toxicology Annual Meeting with Dwayne Hill, a professor at MSU and an SOT member. There were numerous interesting presentations but Shaneka was most fascinated with the way chemicals and toxins worked within the body and the fact that many could be extracted from plants. After graduating with highest honors from MSU with a BS in Biology and minors in Chemistry, English, and Spanish, Shaneka obtained laboratory manager positions at Johns Hopkins University in human genetics and neuroscience to gain both a larger skillset and experience with additional model systems.

Her work in human genetics on osteogenesis imperfecta (Brittle-bone disease) and Bardet-Biedl syndrome used Danio rario (zebrafish) and Mus musculus (mouse) models in the laboratories of Shannon Fisher (now at University of Pennsylvania) and Nicholas Katsanis (now at Duke University) to study and chemically induce genetic abnormalities. Her work in neuroscience in the laboratory of Shanthini Sockanathan on the central nervous system used mouse and Gallus gallus (chick) models.

Inspired by the effects of chemicals and mutagens on those model systems, Shaneka pursued and received a Master’s in Biotechnology with a concentration in Biodefense from Johns Hopkins University. The coursework required for the degree emphasized the various weaponized chemicals, microorganisms, and toxins faced by soldiers in war, victims of terrorist attacks, and encountered in nature. This new information strengthened her understanding of the response of the human body and nervous system as well as those of a variety of model animal systems to chemicals and mutagens.

Shaneka applied to Purdue University to work on her PhD in Molecular Tree Physiology and Genetics as it was now of great importance to learn how plants were able to create and produce chemicals and how they could be genetically modified. Shaneka designed her research project to genetically engineer several plant species to use less water, tolerate greater amounts of salt, and to overproduce wax by overexpressing a single gene for each result. She worked with Arabidopsis thaliana (Arabidopsis), Poplar spp. (poplar), and Fraxinus pennsylvanica (green ash) and was able to manipulate each species to gain a visual confirmation of her research question to earn her PhD in 2011.

Shaneka then accepted a position with the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service to work on Acacia koa (koa) in Hawaii. Koa is a tree species endemic to the all islands within the Hawaiian archipelago whose numbers are severely declining because of disease, invasive pests, and climate change. Shaneka’s research uses NextGeneration technologies to uncover genes and proteins involved in climate, pest, and altitude adaptation.

Shaneka works diligently with diversity groups on the Purdue University campus such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS), and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) to help promote increased diversity in sciences as well. Similarly, Shaneka works with the American Society for Plant Biology Minority Affairs Committee (ASPB MAC) to support and encourage other minorities working in plant biology. In addition, she is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University and the Special Emphasis Program Manager for African-American programs at the USDA-FS Northern Research Station.

Shaneka has not forgotten her experiences at MSU and has returned several times to speak with Minority Biomedical Research Support — Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (MBRS-RISE) students about career options and the value of attending conferences and her mentor Christine Hohmann (a professor at MSU and MBRS-RISE Program Director). She continues to support the efforts of young minority scientists in a variety of fields with which she is experienced and often serves as a science fair and research competition judge on the local and national scale.