Black people are underrepresented in medical research. She wants to change that.

Shellaina Gordon, a biochemistry student at Northeastern, is the recipient of a Goldwater Scholarship to support her pursuit of a career in medicine and science. Photo courtesy Shellaina Gordon

For as long as Shellaina Gordon can remember, the word ‘research’ for her has conjured images of white laboratory coats and tubes of solution. But inside those lab coats, she never saw anyone who looked like her.

And yet, growing up in a family of seven that has dealt with plenty of sickness, Gordon has always found herself drawn to the field of difficult-to-treat diseases, and specifically the study of the proteins involved in human disease, and how their expression, structure and function cause illness.

She decided early on that she wanted to pursue a career in science and medicine to help reduce the healthcare disparities that adversely affect underrepresented communities.

“There is a lack of physician-scientists working at this level and especially those of color,” says Gordon, a biochemistry student who is in her third year at Northeastern. “My hopes are to counteract this reality by exploring disease proteomics at the molecular level—understanding the fundamental differences between different groups of people will be instrumental in developing useful, effective therapeutics.”

An aspiring physician-scientist, Gordon says she intends to learn how the intricacies of medicine intersect with socioeconomic status and race in the development of treatments. Her research goals include learning about the onset and progression of disease in different ethnic groups. She also wants to teach and mentor undergraduate students, especially those who come from underserved backgrounds.

“At some point in my career, I hope to become a tenured professor at a research-intensive university running my own lab,” she says.

Gordon’s research career began in the lab of Teresita Padilla-Benavides, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Under Padilla-Benavides’ tutelage, Gordon has published three scientific journal articles on projects she completed that explored the role of transition metals—which include metals such as manganese, copper, and zinc—in the development of cells. 

At Northeastern, Gordon is treasurer of the student diversity advisory council of the College of Science and of the women’s club water polo team. She is also a member of the Black Engineering Student Society, where she says she has found community and interdisciplinary discussions of science.

“I have been able to network and take advantage of opportunities in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics],” she says.

Earlier this year, Gordon was rewarded with a Goldwater Scholarship to support her pursuit of a career in medicine and science.

Established by Congress to honor Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Goldwater Scholarship is a highly competitive, merit-based award given to college students who plan to pursue research careers in mathematics, engineering, and the natural sciences.

“I am incredibly honored to be a part of such an elite, aspirational community,” Gordon says. “Although I aspire to be a physician-scientist, I anticipate my path to this career will not be linear. In this final year, I hope to further understand where I can make an impact on science and in the world and then act on it.”

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