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Meet Sheila Stiles, Research Geneticist

February 23, 2021

The first full-time African American woman hired at the Milford Laboratory, Sheila Stiles has spent more than 50 years advancing research in shellfish genetics and recruiting/mentoring the next generation of scientists.

Sheila Stiles stands in the Milford Lab tank farm, holding a bag of mussels Research geneticist Sheila Stiles with a bag of mussels in the Milford Lab's tank farm.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. Back then we children played outside most of the time, and we explored nature. My early interest in the natural world led me to study science as I got older. My mother was a teacher, and a great role model. She valued education, and told me and my four siblings that if we studied we could become whatever we wanted to be. All of us ended up graduating from college.

Where did you go to school and in what subject did you get your degree(s)?

I attended St. Augustine/ Father Bertrand High School in Memphis. I studied hard and graduated as class valedictorian. I went on to Xavier University in Louisiana, where I earned my B.S. degree in biology. Later on, I attended the University of Connecticut in Storrs, and received a master’s degree in zoology and ecology. I then earned a Ph.D. in fisheries and genetics from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

How did you come to work at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center?

After graduating from Xavier, I was recruited by a representative from the Department of the Interior to work for the summer at the Milford, Connecticut lab. The lab was then part of the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service. At the end of the summer I was asked to stay on. I was the first full-time African American woman hired at the lab and soon became a fisheries biologist. When NOAA was created in 1970, the lab was transferred to the Department of Commerce and became part of NOAA Fisheries and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. That was more than 50 years ago, and I am still here!

What do you do at the Center?

I am a research geneticist and a project leader. My current research focuses on mussels and encompasses three components: breeding, molecular genetics using DNA/RNA analysis, and field evaluations for stock restoration and analysis. Arlene Longwell, a geneticist who started the genetics program at the Milford Lab, was a mentor. With help from Joseph Choromanski, Dorothy Jeffress and more recently Elizabeth Hayes and other colleagues through the years, I have used breeding to improve the growth and survival characteristics of economically and ecologically valuable shellfish, such as scallops, clams, and oysters. We also work on population genetics for stock identification to assess and monitor stocks, and conduct environmental/habitat suitability and performance evaluations. For years we have donated tens of thousands of bay scallops to local shellfish wardens, industry, and conservation and shellfish groups to try to restore populations that have been in decline. We collaborate and cooperate with many different groups to develop and improve domestic seafood.  

What do you like most about your job?

I enjoy advancing genetics to help society with various applications. I also like sharing information, recruiting young people into science, and teaching others. I have mentored many male and female students through the years, visited many schools from elementary grades to college level. Many times I have provided shellfish for them to study in classroom experiments. I love my work, both the research and mentoring students. It is important that the public understand what we as scientists do. We must engage young people to pursue careers in science so that they can carry on the research and continue making advances.

Sheila Stiles talks with students in her lab during an Open House in 2016.
Sheila Stiles (center, back) speaks with high school students during the Milford Lab's annual Open House in 2016.

I have worked closely with students at the Sound School, a regional vocational aquaculture center, and Gateway Community College in New Haven, Bridgeport Aquaculture School, the University of Bridgeport, and with Career High School students through the Yale University SCHOLAR (Science Collaborative Hands-On Learning and Research) Program. Participating in training and fellowship programs, including the Federal Junior Fellowship Program, and the Summer Youth Employment Training Program through Howard University and the Rockefeller Foundation, have been rewarding. 

Professionally, one of the activities I have enjoyed was my involvement with the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas. As a member of the genetics working group I was able to visit Canada, China, Denmark, Germany and Iceland to inform management about fisheries science. Closer to home, I have been active for years in the lab’s annual open house. The open house provides school students and the general public an opportunity to learn more about the lab and its research programs.

I also participate in diversity and inclusion activities at the Milford Lab, within the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and NOAA, as well as in other organizations. I try to get involved in many of the lab’s outreach efforts to the industry and within the community. I want to get as many people informed and excited about science and research as I can!

What are some of your hobbies?

My main hobby is reading. I was in three book clubs at one time; now it is only one. I also enjoy all kinds of music. Community service keeps me busy. I volunteer at the Yale Peabody Museum, make school visits, and until recently served on my local library board. I am a co-founder of the African American Women’s Summit, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and currently serve as its treasurer.


For more information, please contact Shelley Dawicki.

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on December 19, 2022