Sherley's education includes a B.S. from Harvard University and an M.D and a Ph.D from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow with Arnold J. Levine, at Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 1988 to 1991. From 1991 to 1998 he was Associate Member, Division of Medical Science, Molecular Oncology Group, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was a professor in Biological Engineering Division at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1998 to 2007.
He is open about his opposition to human embryonic stem cell research, and instead, Sherley's research focuses on the molecular and biochemical mechanisms of adult stem cells. In 2006 he stated that cloning human embryos was wrong and that the research from embryonic stem cell research would not lead to a cure all. "Despite similar misinformation to the contrary, adult stem cell research is a viable and vibrant path to new medical therapies. Even calling them an alternative to embryonic stem cells misinforms the public." In 2010, Sherley was the named plaintiff in Sherley v. Sebelius, a case challenging federal (NIH) funding of embryonic stem cell research that has resulted in a suspension of much of the NIH funded research on embryonic stem cells.
In December 2006, Sherley announced he would protest MIT's decision to not grant him tenure by going on a hunger strike. He ended the strike 12 days later. He subsequently asserted that he would continue to show up for work on July 1, 2007, despite no longer having a position at MIT on that date.
Sherley, an African-American, was one of 23 black professors at MIT. As of October 2006, of the 988 faculty members, 165 or about 17% are ethnic minorities. He has stated that he believes that MIT has not given him the freedom to challenge scientific orthodoxy the way the institution would have for a white colleague. Some other colleagues and professors have defended Sherley, including MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky and Harvard medical school's George M. Church. Twenty senior faculty members who participated in evaluation of his tenure case issued a public statement saying that Sherley's evaluation was conducted with integrity and that he was treated fairly.
MIT professor Frank L. Douglas resigned in June 2007 in protest of MIT's refusal to consider granting Sherley tenure. Bernard Loyd, African American MIT alum '83 and former MIT Corporation trustee, withdrew from activities supporting MIT July 2007 for similar reasons.
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- Boston Biomedical Research Institute
- Site dedicated to Sherley's strike
- Discrimination in Academia by Frank L. Douglas, the Scientist, July 31, 2007.
- MIT's Black Hole: Dr. James L. Sherley is just the latest professor to protest the lack of Black tenured