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A Micro Biography of Dr. Steph Shames - A Passion to Succeed

Steph Shames, Ph.D., is a woman on a mission. She is bound and determined to understand every detail of effector proteins, and she is committed to humanizing the face of science. Ultimately, she wants students to understand that things do not always come easily, even for successful people, but that anyone can become a scientist, no matter their background, as long as they are willing to persist through challenging times. That’s certainly been true in her experience. From the earliest days of her childhood, Steph has been pushed by an innate will to succeed at the highest levels, especially in her classwork. But her path wasn’t always smooth, and that’s part of what makes her such an inspiration.  

Steph grew up primarily in Toronto, the oldest of three siblings and the child of a businessman and a bookkeeper. Her parents divorced when she was quite young, and by the time she was in 8th grade she had attended 8 different schools. There were no scientists in her family, and she was encouraged to follow in her father’s footsteps by getting a business degree. But business didn’t interest her. Instead, Steph wanted to become a large animal veterinarian. She was dissuaded and told that science was “very difficult,” but Steph wasn’t easily deterred.  

Becoming a veterinarian requires a university education, and in Ontario prior to 2003, attending university required completing at least six high-level classes after 12th grade called “Ontario Academic Credits (OAC).” One of those classes was OAC Chemistry. It’s hard to believe now, but at the time, Chemistry wasn’t easy for Steph. When she took it in Grade 12, she struggled and earned a C in the class. Not satisfied with the grade she received, she took the course again the following year, with much better results. What makes her persistence even more impressive is that she managed her demanding courseload while active in multiple extracurricular activities and while working multiple jobs to pay for public transportation and save money for university.  

After high school, Steph put herself through college at the University of Western Ontario. Initially, she pursued the biology degree she needed to become a veterinarian, but in her sophomore year, a lab class changed her life and introduced her to microbiology and experimental design. Prior to the class, the only thing that she knew about microbiology was that the lead singer of one of her favorite bands, “The Offspring,” had a microbiology degree. This class required that students develop a hypothesis to test using available lab reagents, such as bacterial strains, plasmids, phages, and media, and give a poster presentation on the results. Steph loved this approach, and reveled in the departure from the rote memorization that formed the bulk of most of her other classwork. She designed an experiment to test the impact of plasmid size on its ability to be taken up by bacteria. At the time, she didn’t know that it was already a well-understood subject. She devoted herself to the project, received 100% in the class, and was completely hooked. She reached out to Professor John McCormick in the Microbiology & Immunology Department and asked if she could work in his lab. He put her through the paces in a rigorous interview and informed her that he could take her on only if she received a scholarship that she had applied for. Sadly, Steph did not receive that scholarship, but she performed well enough in the interview that Dr. McCormick found funding for her and hired her. She spent two summers and her senior honors thesis working on a project analyzing T cell activation by Staphylococcal superantigens. During Steph’s senior year, Dr. McCormick gave a lecture in her senior-level Bacterial Pathogenesis class about Dr. Brett Finlay’s research at the University of British Columbia that focused on Pathogenic E. coli effector proteins and their role in infection. Effectors are bacterial proteins injected into host cells by some pathogens, leading to a variety of perturbations that benefit the pathogen. These piqued her interest, so Steph reached out to Dr. Finlay, who interviewed her and encouraged her to apply to the grad program at UBC. Steph’s finances were tight, so even though she wanted to pursue a doctorate, she applied to the master’s program, which had more affordable tuition. She was accepted, and a few months later she moved to Vancouver and began working in Dr. Finlay’s lab.  

Steph’s graduate research focused on two specific E. coli effector proteins. But her work in Dr. Finlay’s lab was not smooth sailing. It turns out that for the majority of the first two years of grad school, Steph was working with a strain of E. coli that had an undisclosed secondary mutation. As a result, none of the data from the first two years of her graduate work went into her dissertation. None. For two years. Despite the setback, it was clear that Steph was a stellar student, and she earned a four-year scholarship from UBC that covered her Ph.D. tuition; she also won two additional competitive scholarships that covered her stipend. Following the setback with the strain mutations, Steph redoubled her efforts. In the end, she ended up with an outstanding 11 publications from her Ph.D., and one of the effector proteins she studied is currently being developed as a treatment for psoriasis.   

Steph jokes that 30 effector proteins weren’t enough for her, so she joined Dr. Craig Roy’s lab at Yale for postdoctoral training and turned her attention to Legionella and its ~300 effector proteins. (Dr. Roy is an MSU MMG alumnus who endowed our Brubaker Lectureship). At Yale, Steph embarked on an ambitious high-throughput sequencing-based project to define the contribution of individual effector proteins to Legionella’s fitness in cell culture and animal infection models. In collaboration with Dr. Andy Goodman of Yale, she ended up discovering a novel mode of effector-triggered immunity and identifying that the previously characterized effector mediates Legionella virulence by regulating another effector protein. 

Dr. Steph Shames pipetting in lab
Dr. Steph Shames at her lab at Kansas State

Following her Postdoc, Steph took a faculty position at Kansas State in the Division of Biology, particularly because she was excited by the school’s emphasis on undergraduate research. That research played a pivotal role in her life, and she was eager to provide that opportunity for her own undergrads. As MSU and MMG expanded its focus on immunology and immunopathogenesis, she was recruited to join us at MSU. Today, Steph’s research continues to use Legionella to understand the fundamental mechanisms of bacterial pathogenesis and how the immune system detects and eradicates bacterial pathogens. The goal is to use that knowledge to serve as a foundation for therapeutics to combat bacterial infections and improve human health. Simultaneously, she uses her teaching and mentorship roles to encourage students to persist through their own challenges and to see themselves as scientists, no matter their backgrounds.  


by Debbie Walton