Chemistry Prof. Shelli Frey regularly peers out the window of her office in the Science Center as students come in and out of her biophysical chemistry lab. She camps out on purpose during this student-led period, checking in periodically. This, she says, is when the magic happens.
“I can hear them out there having conversations about ‘how do I do this?’” she said. “I find that you can’t learn problem-solving without actually problem-solving.”
Frey has always been a problem-solver. Growing up in upstate New York on a property with seven acres and a backyard pond, she had an innate curiosity about the world. When she arrived at Haverford College, she initially pursued a biology major but changed her mind after taking a general chemistry course.
“I loved it,” she said. “It was very problem-based, and it was set up as a series of questions, ‘Why is the sky blue?’ ‘Why is grass green?’ I thought it was amazing getting to answer these questions about the why and figuring that out on a fundamental level.”
Frey confronts answers to questions both in the classroom and at home. Her 6-year-old daughter, she says, is at the age when she’s constantly asking, “Why?” When Frey works with students, she also places value on answering questions that matter.
“We aim to teach chemistry through a variety of lenses,” she explained. “It’s sometimes less literally about the chemistry, but about how we look at problems and how you actually dive in to answer that question.”
Frey, an extensive traveler, feeds her curiosity about the world through “life-changing” trips, including hiking through the Torii gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. “The traveling bug bit when I left the country for the first time my senior year in college,” Frey said, recalling her spring break trip to Iceland. “I was hooked.”
Frey’s husband of 16 years, Philip, and daughters Ellie, 9, and Tilda, 6, share her love for traveling. They joined her in 2018 for a sabbatical in Germany, where she worked at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces. They also share her passions for running, hiking, and baking.
Not only does Frey find joy in many facets of her personal life, she also thrives as a multidisciplinary scientist.
“Part of my career is working at the interface between several scientific disciplines, namely chemistry, biology, and physics, to answer medically related questions,” said Frey, who specializes in understanding structure-function relationships of the cell membrane.
Frey learned the value of studying across disciplines early on. During her first year at Haverford, she studied photodynamic therapy in a biophysical chemistry research lab. Soon, she craved something different and wound up in a biology lab across campus.
“It was a completely different experience,” Frey said. “I was crushing worms to extract their DNA and doing all this stuff that I had never done.”
In 2012, Frey played a role in creating Gettysburg’s Cross-Disciplinary Science Institute (X-SIG) with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Since then, the program has held a special place in Frey’s heart.
“[X-SIG] was born the same month as my daughter [Ellie], so I say that they’ve grown up together,” she said.
X-SIG, founded with the goal to better prepare our students to be “research ready, research active, and research connected,” encompasses the entire scientific division.
At the end of her PhD at the University of Chicago, Frey, unsure where her path would take her, made the transition from student to teacher. She landed a teaching position at Wabash College, a small liberal arts college in Indiana, and fell in love with teaching.
“It felt intuitive,” she said. “[It was] one of the first times where I was like, ‘Maybe this is what I’m supposed to do. This feels right.’”
Throughout her life, Frey has led with this intuitive passion, both in and out of the classroom. She’s been an avid runner since seventh grade, recently completing the Chicago Marathon two years after sustaining major injuries in a car accident. Ultimately, Frey shares her experiences to encourage her students, coauthoring papers with them.
“The work that I’m doing is the work that they’re doing,” she said.
by Phoebe Doscher ’22