Dr. Shirley Pomponi is an explorer at heart whose passion took root in the science labs at the College of Saint Elizabeth and now lies deep at sea.
Dr. Pomponi, who received her Bachelor of Arts in biology in 1971, is executive director of the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research, and Technology at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, Florida Atlantic University in Fort Pierce, Florida. In that capacity, she is involved in the discovery of natural marine products that can be developed into drugs to treat human diseases.
She began her academic career at CSE under the watchful eyes of Sr. Anna Catherine Lawlor and Sr. Theresa Angela Madden. “It was they who provided me with the experience, education, and opportunity that led to a career in marine science,” Dr. Pomponi recounts. In fact, it was the summer between her sophomore and junior years that she took a course in marine biology in St. Croix – an event that steered her career.
She received her M.S. and Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography from the University of Miami, was on the research faculty at the University of Maryland, and joined Harbor Branch Oceanographic in 1984.
Her research focuses on marine biotechnology, specifically, and the discovery and development of marine-derived drugs. She has authored or co-authored more than 100 scientific publications and is co-inventor on several patents.
Dr. Pomponi has led numerous research expeditions worldwide. She has discovered many deepwater sponges from which chemicals with pharmaceutical properties have been identified. Several studies are in the development stage as drugs. A highlight of her career is the opportunity she’s had to make more than 300 dives in the Johnson-Sea-Link submersibles—piloted by her husband, Don Liberatore. She continues to enjoy scuba diving for science and pleasure.
Although she would much rather be in the lab or at sea, Dr. Pomponi participates in a number of national, regional, and state organizations where she helps develop priorities for ocean and coastal research. She is President of the Southern Association of Marine Laboratories and Chair of the Florida Institute of Oceanography. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council, the U.S. National Committee for the Census of Marine Life, the National Association of Marine Laboratories, the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association, and the Florida Ocean Alliance. She was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2003.
Dr. Pomponi is married to Don Liberatore and has two stepdaughters, Kimberly and Keriann Liberatore. Kim is a family therapist and Keri is doing graduate studies in physical and occupational therapy. Her parents, James and Cecelia Pomponi, and her brother Jim and his family live in southern New Jersey, and along with her husband, they continue to be her strongest supporters.