FAU research professor Shirley Pomponi receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Pomponi hopes the recognition from the award helps raise awareness on the type of research in biotechnology and its contributions to the use of marine resources in more beneficial ways.

Nathalie Vega, Contributing Writer

The Society for In Vitro Biology (SIVB) is acknowledging an FAU research professor from Harbor Branch through one of its highest awards — Recognition for one’s work is often seen as a major milestone.

Shirley Pomponi, a marine biotechnologist, has received the SIVB’s 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award.

The SIVB aims to foster exchanges of knowledge of in vitro biology of animal and plant cells, tissues, and organs. Their “Lifetime Achievement Award” is for late-career scientists who have significantly impacted or advanced in vitro biology. They declined to give further comment.

Pomponi hopes the recognition from the award helps raise awareness on the type of research in biotechnology and its contributions to the use of marine resources in more beneficial ways. She also hopes that this can lead to more funding and support.

The laboratory Pomponi works in focuses on “cell culture of marine sponges that produce compounds that are of pharmaceutical importance.” She added her laboratory also works on using cell cultures for the production of sponges that can be used to restore habitats affected by extreme weather.

According to Pomponi, the discovery of chemicals with pharmaceutical activity was a team effort. This team is led by Amy Wright, an FAU research professor, administrative director of the Florida Center for Coastal and Human Health, and director for the Florida Center of Excellence in Biomedical and Marine Biotechnology. Wright has led the effort since 2002, and her team also includes Associate Research Professor Esther Guzmán, Research Professor Peter McCarthy, and Pomponi herself.

Wright discussed the importance of Pomponi’s long-term contributions, and said Pomponi had recent breakthroughs that helped her get the award.

“Everybody just thinks it’s amazing and exciting,” Wright said. “We’re all excited.”

Pomponi has also contributed to marine biotechnology through her work involving cell lines, which are groups of cells that can divide continuously. One particular contribution involves the development of a marine invertebrate cell line, which had not been done before.

Pomponi said her Ph.D student Megan Conkling, a geosciences student, played a large role in the sponge cell line development. Pomponi’s idea was that sponge cells could be cultured in a laboratory and stimulated so they could produce certain compounds. 

However, there was an issue with getting the cells to divide until about three years ago after a “transformational discovery.” Conkling had suggested testing their “new” nutrient medium on cells of sponges that they had in their sponge biobank.

According to Pomponi, Conkling is working on “developing models of key Florida reef sponges,” and is also testing them in cell culture to observe the effects of increased temperature or lower pH to predict the effects these changes would have on future oceans.

Former and current students and collaborators of Pomponi have also greatly impacted in vitro biology over the past 30 years. Her current FAU students and staff are Conkling, Elizabeth Urban-Gedamke, a research technician who graduated with a Master of Science in Marine Science & Oceanography (MSO MS) in 2021, and Cassady Dougan, a graduate student also working on an MSO MS. 

Pomponi also teaches classes at Wageningen University in the Netherlands as a special professor of marine biotechnology, and she mentors graduate students from that university at Harbor Branch.

In addition to Pomponi’s students and collaborators, her colleague Rene Wijffels and the students they both supervised at Wageningen University have had significant impacts on efforts in sponge cell culture through collaborations since 1998. Pomponi’s colleagues at the university are Wijffels, Dirk Martens, former Ph.D students Kylie Hesp and Klaske Schippers, as well as current Ph.D student Stephanie Munroe.

Pomponi had received two previous awards from the SIVB, along with other recognitions.

In 2019, Pomponi participated in NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), specifically NEEMO 23, along with five others. She says that she was in the underwater habitat “Aquarius” for nine days. She was part of the science crew along with three other women, and two male habitat technicians participated as well. The science crew, in addition to Pomponi, included the European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, and the NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins. According to Pomponi, both of them are now on the International Space Station. 

Pomponi is also an associate director of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research and Technology, although she clarified the project ends on June 30.

In 2003, she was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame, which recognizes contributions of women who are leaders, pioneers, and innovators in fields of diving.

She had received one other professional award, and Monmouth University recognized her as “Champion of the Ocean.”

“They confer this award every year on somebody who’s done a lot of work in ocean policy or advancing protection of the ocean,” Pomponi explained.

Pomponi said many people at Harbor Branch have congratulated her on the Lifetime Achievement Award. James Sullivan, executive director of FAU Harbor Branch, described her nomination as “well-deserved.”

“I think she has brought real science validity on a national stage to what FAU does,” said Sullivan.

Nathalie Vega is a contributing writer for the University Press. For more information on this article or others, you can reach Nathalie at [email protected].