Shirley M. Tilghman : Biologist and STEM Activist

For every girl who dreams of becoming a scientist or engineer, there is an obligation on our part to do everything we can to ensure that her chances rest on her abilities and her determination, just as they do for her male counterparts.” –Shirley M. Tilghman

The above quote by the eminent molecular biologist and educator speaks volumes about her determination to end discrimination in science.

Over the years, she had vehemently advocated for women who are aspiring to have a career in science. No wonder; she was declared one of the 50 most important women in science by the Discovery Magazine in 2002.

So, let’s know more about the inspiring life of Shirley M. Tilghman-one of the founders of the National Advisory Council of the Human Genome Project (National Institutes of Health). 

Early Childhood

Dr. Tilghman was born on September 17, 1946, to Shirley Marie and Henry Caldwell in Toronto. Her father uses to give her math puzzles to solve, which makes her fell in love with mathematics during her childhood days.

She excelled in her studies in school but was quite impatient because of her curious mind.

She does her schooling at Winnipeg, a middle-class manufacturing city in Canada, where she actively participated in varied sports such as basketball, volleyball and even tried her hands in music!

Gradually, she developed an intense interest in science during her high school days that remain forever in her life.  


After completing high school, Tilghman managed to secure a scholarship at Queen’s University in Ontario. Consequently, she joined the same and completed her B.Sc honors in chemistry in 1968.

Immediately, Tilghman went to Africa through the Canadian University Service Overseas and joined a secondary school as a teacher in Sierra Leone, which upsets her mother very much.

After two years, she returned and gets married to Joseph Tilghman, a Peace Corps volunteer. In 1970, she enrolled herself at Temple University in Philadelphia to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

The title of her Ph.D. dissertation was Hormonal Regulation of Phosphoenolpyruvate Carboxykinase.

In 1975, she started her postdoctoral studies at NIH (National Institutes of Health) in Maryland, where she engages in some groundbreaking discoveries. 


During her postdoctoral fellowship at NIH, Dr. Shirley M. Tilghman was one of the first ones who applied molecular biology to mice and successfully cloned the mammalian gene.

After leaving NIH, she started her professional life as an assistant professor at the Fels Research Institute (Temple University, Philadelphia) for a year before joining the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia as an associate professor.

In 1986, she joined the prestigious Princeton University, and two years later was appointed as an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute of the same university.

However, after 15 years of joining the university, she was elected as the president of Princeton University in 2001.

There, she initiated a fellowship program to encourage postdoctoral students to have experience in teaching and research work.

Currently, she is serving as the professor of molecular biology and public policy as well as President Emeritus at Princeton University. 


Although the notable molecular biologist won many awards in her illustrious career, some of the notable ones are as follows: 

1996- President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching

2002- L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science

2003- Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Developmental Biology

2007- Genetics Society of America Medal

Shirley M. Tilghman is also a member of the American Philosophical Society, the Royal Society of London, the National Academy of Sciences, and several other societies.

Currently, she is serving as a trustee of several educational institutions, including Amherst College, the Institute for Advanced Study, and more.

Recently, she was the co-chairman of the Restart and Recovery Commission set up by the Governor of New Jersey that deals with the timing and preparation for the recovery of the city due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

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