In Memory of Mark E. Shirtliff, PhD
"It is not the length of life but the depth of life,” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). This quote holds true to the life of Mark E. Shirtliff, Ph.D. As a scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, mentor, professor, father, husband, and adventurer, Mark was profoundly full of life. Sadly, Mark lost his life in a tragic river accident on the Yellowstone River near Gardiner, Montana on July 12th, 2018. The University of Maryland Baltimore (UMB) community continues to feel an immense loss in the absence of Mark Shirtliff. He touched so many lives in our community ranging from faculty, to numerous students, to administrative staff, to housekeeping staff, and to many others.
He made a particularly large impact on the UMB community as a scientist, mentor, and professor at UMB. Mark held a primary appointment as a professor in the Department of Microbial Pathogenesis in the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD) and a secondary appointment as a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM). Mark’s lab studied the bacterial pathogen Staphylococcus aureus, in particular methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), and his most recent work aimed to fight against dangerous MRSA infections that form microbial communities called biofilms. His passion for his research drew many students into his lab as he mentored countless students pursuing a variety of degree backgrounds including PhD, MD, MD/PhD, DDS, and DDS/PhD as well as other interning students. In addition to his role as a scientist and mentor in the lab, he mentored students outside of the lab during his course lectures and during his service as the chair of the Molecular Microbiology and Immunology (MMI) qualifying exam committee.
He deeply cared about the students and valued them as fellow colleagues and as developing scientists. He generously gave of his time to help students work through challenging concepts or experiments and provided unwavering encouragement and support to students when faced with academic as well as personal challenges. Many students have shared that Mark’s mentorship in addition to his passion for science permanently impacted their time at UMB and shaped their lives during their careers.
Devon Allison, PhD, a DDS/PhD student in Mark’s lab who recently defended her thesis and received her PhD, shared an example of Mark’s impact in her life. With her dual degree, Devon frequently has to juggle her science in the lab with responsibilities in the dental school clinic. “I had gone into Mark’s office after getting done with clinic. I remember I was pretty tired, because I was in oral surgery. He and a fellow labmate were just talking and drinking some bourbon, and I came in and sat down. Mark asked me if I was okay, to which I gave my typical ‘yeah.’ He then said, ‘So no, you’re not.’ He asked me what was wrong, and I mentioned that I didn’t feel like I had even deserved to get my PhD, like I hadn’t done enough work. And then he said ‘You are having imposter syndrome. You feel like you’re just a sham. I have this too.’ I was rather shocked that Mark mentioned that, but he kept reassuring me that most likely, if I didn’t have some thought over it, I was probably doing something wrong. He added that I needed to not get consistently bogged down with the negative thoughts. Anytime I ever started doubting myself, Mark was there to reassure me. There was always someone on my side with Mark, and that’s something that I know many people go through school never experiencing.”
His scientific interest in MRSA aligned with his personally affirmed duty to be a public servant and help others as his lab pursued a vaccine against MRSA antigens. His research aimed to specifically target those antigens expressed during biofilm growth, leading to the development of a vaccine against MRSA. Mark was the lead inventor of this unique multivalent vaccine designed to fight against MRSA infection in both biofilm and free-floating phases of the bacterial lifestyle. The vaccine was licensed to Serenta Biotechnology, LLC, a Gaithersburg, Maryland-based startup that he, in fact, was a co-founder and chief scientific officer of. In a way, Mark’s legacy will continue to live on in the vaccine.
Mark was definitely an adventurer. He annually visited Montana with his family to embrace the outdoors through many outdoor recreational activities, such as hiking, boating, and fishing. He was a husband to his wife, Birthe Kjellerup, PhD, MSc, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was also a father of four.
The UMB community held a memorial service for Mark Shirtliff on July 25th 2018 to honor his life and legacy by bringing together those who cared about him and sharing personal stories about Mark. His family, faculty as well as past and present students from his lab shared emotional memories filled with the feelings of shock, sadness, and loss in addition to many humorous stories about interactions with Mark. The service manifested the true impact that Mark had on the UMB community. Mark’s death leaves a hole in the UMB community that will never be filled. He will be greatly missed by all. In the future, a memorial scholarship fund will be created in his name to honor Mark Shirtliff’s life and impact on UMB.