Bruce Shapiro Leaves a Legacy Measured in Lives Touched

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; photo contributed by Bruce Shapiro
Bruce Shapiro

A legacy is one of the grand aspirations in science. Whether it means giving knowledge or advancing the field, every scientist dreams of imparting a meaningful impact in some way. For Bruce Shapiro, Ph.D., NCI at Frederick’s newest scientist emeritus, the dream is a reality.

The former senior investigator and section head in the RNA Biology Laboratory of the Center for Cancer Research has officially retired after more than 46 years at the National Institutes of Health. His musings on his career are humble, but his accomplishments are unmistakable.

Shapiro, a computer scientist by training, was among the first group of researchers to work with the CRAY X-MP supercomputer that came online in Frederick in 1986, at the time the world’s first and only supercomputer dedicated entirely to biomedical research. In fact, he was instrumental in helping his group see the value in moving from Bethesda to Frederick to be closer to it after the late Alan Rabson, M.D., an NCI division director at the time, proposed the relocation.

Later, Shapiro became one of the first scientists to create a computer program for drawing the structure of RNA. He also heavily contributed to the parenthetical notation that’s used to represent RNA secondary structure. It’s still sometimes called “the Shapiro Notation.”

“It has been a total pleasure to have Bruce as a colleague in the RNA Biology Laboratory. He has been a friend to all, usually the first to ask questions at our research talks and always interested in everyone’s science,” said Sandra Wolin, M.D., Ph.D., RNA Biology Laboratory chief.

Add to that the several publicly available software packages he and his team developed, the “revolutions” he recalls witnessing in computer science and RNA biology, his hundreds of publications, his former section’s expansion to blend computational and biological research by establishing its own experimental laboratory, his status as a leading pioneer in RNA nanobiology in computational and experimental areas, his numerous patents and technology transfer awards, and his role in co-founding the International Society of RNA Nanotechnology and Nanomedicine as a council member.

Achievements alone aren’t the backbone of science, however. Even the strongest findings or wisest administrative improvements need a new generation of capable scientists to make the next advance.

That’s the other part of Shapiro’s legacy.

Giving to the Next Generation

Shapiro has always been a devoted educator in addition to a devoted scientist. He taught in the computer science department at University of Maryland for 20 years, but his colleagues at NCI at Frederick likely best know him and his team as enthusiastic mentors.

“He is … one of the most dedicated mentors of high school and summer students in all of NCI at Frederick, as he has mentored more than 50 of these students,” Wolin said.

Their efforts to guide aspiring and junior scientists stretch back to the 1980s.

“I would like to thank Dr. Shapiro for inviting me into the world of scientific research and investing in so many young scholars as we were first comprehending what science is and what functions it can serve to enhance human and environmental life,” said Adrian Davey, who worked as an intern in Shapiro’s lab from 2013–2014 through NCI at Frederick’s Werner H. Kirsten (WHK) Student Internship Program.

Mentorship reached every part of Shapiro’s team. Staff at all levels, including junior fellows—themselves pupils learning from mentors—were reputed for their commitment to taking on trainees or interns. Some received the WHK Program’s Mentor of the Year Award in past years or were runners-up. Others contributed advice to mentorship-related articles in this newsletter.

“It’s sort of the future,” Shapiro said. “You try to get the students into the best positions that they possibly can. In my case, being in science, there’s the [goal] to impart as much as possible to the students, try to excite them in the field and show them how interesting and important it all is.”

Launching New Legacies

Their efforts enriched a generation of young scientists and professionals.

Davey, the former intern, is now pursuing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at University of California, Berkeley. He recalls his internship as a career-launching experience that taught him necessary coding skills, gave him a chance to apply the chemistry principles he learned in school, and united his love for science with his love for communication.

“Because of [Dr. Shapiro’s] wisdom, guidance, and patience, I have grown as a researcher and approach various problems with the enthusiasm I recall being pervasive in [his] lab,” said Davey, who also complimented the guidance from co-mentor Wojciech Kasprzak, a bioinformatics analyst programmer in Shapiro’s section.

Other interns and trainees in Shapiro’s section eagerly sought opportunities to cross-train between computational and laboratory science. Some co-authored manuscripts or co-designed software. One competed in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search (now the Regeneron Science Talent Search).

Several pupils went on to study or secure jobs at well-regarded universities. Equally valuable, the time in Shapiro’s section helped others realize that careers in science weren’t what they wanted.

“That experience, I think, helped them kind of maneuver the pathway to what they wanted to go into,” Shapiro said. “[It] opens them up to what goes on outside of school.”

The training helped empower many pupils to start making a mark at the beginning of their careers. Davey is a recent exemplar, combining his scientific experience with his passion for community service to become a prominent mentor in college. He continues to be a presence both inside and outside of the laboratory.

Interns’ projects had a real effect too. Shapiro’s team continued to use the software packages that some pupils developed during their internships. Later interns refined these further, honing their forebearers’ work and adding to the team’s story.

Those experiences are the beginnings of these young scientists’ own legacies. The pupils are becoming the capable researchers who make the next advances and train their own pupils.

That can’t be easily quantified, but it’s the result of a retired senior scientist’s dedication—and a part of a legacy every bit as important as any scientific discovery.


Samuel Lopez is a technical editor in Scientific Publications, Graphics & Media (SPGM), where he writes for NCI at Frederick and Frederick National Laboratory’s news outlets; manages the day-to-day operations of the Poster newsletter; informally serves as an institutional historian; and edits scientific manuscripts, corporate documentation, and a slew of other written media. SPGM is the facilities’ creative services department and hub for editing, illustration, graphic design, formatting, and multimedia training and support.