Dr. Shirley A. Pomponi

Meet Shirley A. Pomponi

Dr. Shirley A. Pomponi is a natural products biologist/research coordinator with a very diverse job! Read the full text of Shirley's interview below to learn more about her job.


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About the Job

What is your title?

I am vice president and director of research at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, which is a nonprofit research institution in Fort Pierce, Florida. Fort Pierce is on the southeast coast of Florida.

Where do you work?

My job is actually very diverse. I’m involved in institutional management. I direct the areas of research that are going on at Harbor Branch where we have a very broad research program. My favorite part of my job is going out in the field on our research ships, which I get to do about six weeks out of every year.

For the past 18 years, I’ve been involved in a marine natural products drug discovery program. We are looking for marine plants and animals that produce chemicals that can be developed into drugs to treat human diseases. I feel this is a way that I can combine my educational experience in biological oceanography and marine biology with an interest in medicine and pharmacology.

What are the educational requirements for your job?

Because of the level of management, administration and project coordination that I do, my job requires a PhD. However, we have people working in marine science with associate degrees all the way up to PhDs, and they’re all doing laboratory work as well. You don’t need a PhD to do some exciting laboratory work. If I had some background in the concepts of teaching, I think that someone with my experience could also do a good job teaching students, particularly in ocean sciences.

What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?

At the starting end of marine science, like a lab technician, the annual salary can be around $21,000 to $25,000. As you move up and get into project management, you can earn perhaps $75,000 to $100,000 a year. When you go even higher up in terms of institutional management, the earning potential could be more than $150,000 per year.

Job Duties

Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.

The process by which we look for drugs is to go out and use our ships and submersibles. We go down to about 3,000 ft. In shallow waters, we scuba dive. We collect samples, which are primarily invertebrates such as sponges and sea fans. We take them back to the lab and grind them up and make what we call an extract. We test the extract, which has many common chemicals in it, and see, for example, if it will kill cancer cells. If it will, our chemists figure out which single chemical in the extract is responsible for that activity. We have actually discovered many chemicals that have potential for the treatment of cancer, inflammatory diseases, and infectious diseases. We’ve patented these discoveries and have been fortunate enough to license one of our discoveries to a pharmaceutical company. It is in development right now to treat cancer, so it’s on it’s way to the clinic. We’re really excited about that.

What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?

Probably the most fascinating part of my job is being able to go in the submersibles. We have three submersibles at Harbor Branch. To be able to go in the submersibles and really see organisms that live down deep is fantastic. We can go as deep as 3,000 ft, and on practically every dive I’ve seen something unique.

Another great part of my job is that I get to travel. It takes a certain personality to accept that, because I travel a great deal, and that doesn’t always mesh with people's lifestyles. I travel for meetings to determine how oceanographic research is going on in the United States. I also travel about six weeks out of each year to do fieldwork all over the world. Most of my travel is in the United States, but I also travel to Europe, the Far East, Australia, and New Zealand.

About Shirley

What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?

When I was a sophomore in college, I changed my career focus, which up until that point had been to go into direct discovery research. In the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I had the opportunity to take a course in marine ecology in St. Croix, and at that point I decided I wanted to go into marine science. It was probably about 10 years later that I was lucky enough to combine my interests in marine science and pharmacology into my career.

When I was in college and even in graduate school, I never anticipated that I would be doing what I'm doing now. When I was younger I thought I’d have a career in medical research or marine science. I just never guessed that I would be able to combine the two, nor did I ever think that I would get this far along in terms of institutional management and being involved in the development of programs at the national level. It’s been a series of nice surprises and I really enjoy my job.

Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?

I wish that I had taken more chemistry courses. At the time I was in school, molecular biology was really just starting. If I had the opportunity to go back and spend a year in school, I would take some biochemistry and molecular biology. I’ve taken some short courses in them, but I could use more background in those sciences.

What are your hobbies?

I love to go to the beach and do outdoor activities such as rollerblading and biking. I also really enjoy reading.

Career Timeline

Interests in Elementary School:

The beach and ocean

Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:

Sophomore in college.

First Marine Science Class:

Marine ecology field course in the summer between sophomore and junior years of college.


1971 - BA, biology
1974 - MS, biological oceanography
1977 - PhD, biological oceanography

First Career-related Job:

Research scientist at the University of Maryland, Horn Point laboratories.

Employment Journey/Career Transitions:

Sponge and oyster taxonomy, planning expeditions for a new program in drug discovery at Harbor Branch. Abruptly moved from studying sponges and oysters to studying chemicals with pharmaceutical potential procured from marine organisms.

Other accomplishments:

Discovered a chemical that can kill cancer cells, called discodermolide, from a deep-water sponge. Was involved in collecting the sponge, identifying it, working with the team who discovered its anticancer activity, and licensing the compound to a pharmaceutical company that is now developing it as a cancer drug.