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Skilled in Science, She Found Fertile Intellectual Ground in Humanities

Michelle Shapiro wants to make patients feel good about their smiles

Michelle Shapiro always had a knack for science.

So it was no surprise that this Edison native majored in cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers and then attended Harvard School of Dental Medicine.

But Shapiro’s undergraduate experience in the School of Arts and Sciences wasn’t simply the story of an aspiring scientist hunkering down in the lab.

Some of her most striking intellectual discoveries took place in the humanities.

I want to help people and make them feel happy about their smiles.

“I think that taking a rich, varied, and eclectic course load empowers us to learn many things about the world,” says Shapiro, formerly Michelle Lieblich, who earned her degree in 2011 as part of the first Arts and Sciences graduating class. “It’s one of the reasons we go to college.”

Michelle ShapiroShapiro, who grew up attending Orthodox Jewish schools, pursued a minor at Rutgers in Jewish studies, a field that examines Jewish life from many angles, including historical, political, and linguistic perspectives.

“I learned a lot of Jewish studies growing up, and I wanted to further that education because I was passionate about it, both personally and intellectually,” she says. “Rutgers was a place I could do that, one because it has a very good Jewish studies department, and also because it’s very different from the way you would learn it in yeshivas.”

On the science side, meanwhile, Shapiro’s fascination with the underlying details of human life drew her to the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience.

“It just spoke to me,” she says. “I like studying at the cellular level. It’s amazing to me that every single thing that goes in our bodies happens through these little cellular interactions.”

She served as an Aresty Research Fellow, studying spinal cord regeneration at the W.M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience.

“The research element is a huge benefit at Rutgers,” she says. “I didn’t know coming out of high school that I wanted to do research or even what research was.”

Her research wasn’t limited to science. Shapiro researched and wrote an interdisciplinary thesis on Vatican-Israel relations. She praised Paola Tartakoff, a professor of Jewish studies and history who served as an advisor on the project and as an overall mentor.

“She pushed me to do better,” Shapiro says. “Science was my strength, but she helped me develop another side of my academic interest.” When Shapiro arrived at Harvard, she felt slightly intimidated. But not for long.