An award-winning poet with an appreciation for the sciences, Leslie Shinn — coordinator of the biochemistry and Vagelos Scholars program in molecular life sciences for more than 20 years — died on Aug. 29.
Her death came as a shock to many, but students said she will always be remembered as the Vagelos MLS "mom." Eighty-eight current and former Vagelos MLS students and faculty convened over Zoom on Sept. 6 for a virtual memorial service organized by the Vagelos Happiness Project, a mental health initiative which coordinates mentorships and social events within the program.
1950 College graduate Roy Vagelos, whom the Vagelos MLS program is named after for his and his wife's substantial contribution to the School of Arts and Sciences, said, “The program could not have succeeded without Leslie Shinn. She was the grease of the wheels that made everything happen. She will be enormously missed by all of us.”
The Vagelos MLS program, "an enhanced version of the biochemistry course program," is designed for students who plan to pursue scientific research careers, requiring these students to major in two sciences or sub-matriculate for a master of science degree in the standard four years.
Chemistry professor Jeffrey Saven, the co-director of the Vagelos MLS and biochemistry programs, collaborated closely with Shinn since she joined the programs in 1998 as undergraduate coordinator. Shinn was present to welcome the first Vagelos MLS cohort that fall, he said.
Saven described her death as very sudden and "quite a shock" for the biochemistry and Vagelos MLS family.
"She's such key member of the whole effort with both the [Biochemistry] major and the MLS program and all of that was being lined up in regards with how they were going to interact with students and that was going to be particularly sensitive, especially this fall with everything being remote and online," Saven said.
Shinn helped students in both programs with their course registration and coordinated various social and pre-professional events, 2020 College and Chemistry masters graduate Sabrina DaSilva said. Saven added she always made it a priority to meet with all students interested in the biochemistry program before declaring their major.
Many students and graduates, however, remember her for far more than her administrative tasks. Describing her as "the light of the program," students said Shinn was an important source of comfort and the motherly figure the biochemistry and Vagelos MLS programs with rigorous classes and research requirements very much needed.
“If you really just needed a hug or just to talk to someone who would give you all this motherly affection, you would just go to Leslie’s office and she’d be there with a smile," College senior and first-year Chemistry masters student Sarah Root said.
DaSilva said oftentimes, the small Vagelos MLS lounge in the chemistry building would be packed with "stressed out" students working on problem sets and worrying about exams. But when Shinn stopped by to check in on them, she would "immediately change the mood of the room and brighten all our days," DaSilva said.
2018 College and Chemistry masters graduate Hope Merens added Shinn had a calm aura about her that was able to comfort stressed students. She recalls on the day of an annual Biological Chemistry seminar series which she helped Shinn organize, a snowstorm caused many professors to cancel last minute. Meres said she emailed Shinn around 7:00 a.m. that day in panic, but Shinn was able to calm her down and help make the event a success.
“She was just so chill," Merens said. "She was like, ‘Let’s just get it figured out. Just have breakfast with the speaker. We’ll make a schedule and email these professors.’ She was just really good with stressful situations."
She added that Shinn helped Vagelos scholars understand the importance of life outside academics. Merens says Shinn regularly asked students about their day and told them about her own to reduce their stress. Shinn would often talk to Merens about trips with her daughter or her poetry.
Although Shinn spent her years mentoring Biochemistry and Vagelos MLS students, she considered herself to be a "poet with a Penn day job," according to her obituary.
Shinn won the 2013 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry from literary publishing house Persea Books for her collection of poems titled "Inside Spiders." As a 2015 Civitella Ranieri Fellow, Shinn was invited to work at the Civitella Ranieri Center, located in a 15th century castle in the Umbrian region of Italy where international writers, composers, and visual artists are encouraged to participate in excursions through the Umbrian countryside, take Italian classes, and give presentations about their work while at the castle.
Shinn’s writing has also appeared in journals such as African and feminism peer-reviewed academic journal "Agenda" and "Beloit Poetry Journal."
Merens recalled fondly that she was once given a poem written by Shinn titled "Self-Portrait" to read for her ENGL 040 class on 1660-1914 British poetry.
Leslie Shinn is survived by her daughter Lily Johnson and son Hart Johnson.
“There’s so much more that I can’t put into words about how much Leslie meant to me and how she was always there, always supporting all of us, always present and caring and helping us in every way she could," Root said during the memorial. "I am really going to miss my MLS program mom.”