Accomplished in competitive ballroom dancing, flamenco guitar, gardening, meditation and baking a divine banana cake — not to mention a revered scientific career — Shelley N. Grimes confessed three weeks before she died that there was still one skill she had hoped to improve: juggling.
On a table at her funeral, trinkets and mementos that represented her many interests surrounded the urn with her remains. The table was crammed with color, much like her life.
Grimes, a research scientist at the University of Minnesota, died of cancer March 20 at age 54.
“You just never knew what would be next, but eventually it all made sense,” said Grimes’ husband, Shannon Carson, about her avid pursuit of countless hobbies. “It was always for some purpose.”
Grimes’ mastery of so many extracurricular talents reflected the same determination that pushed her to the top of her scientific field, colleagues said.
The Apple Valley native and St. Olaf College graduate got her Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1989. She remained at the U, working on a research team at the School of Dentistry. Her focus was to understand the mechanics of a single virus, phi29, which infects bacteria. She and her colleagues developed a simple model system that biologists and physicists across the country relied on to understand larger biological processes.
In essence, by breaking down something complex into its smallest components, Grimes made it possible for more vexing problems to be unraveled.
“It’s honestly just the beauty and the simplicity of the system,” said colleague Paul Jardine.
“We don’t come in here thinking we’re going to cure a disease, but with our system, we could maybe break through barriers of understanding.”
Grimes didn’t seek accolades for her work. Rather, she was dedicated to making sure her model was useful to scientists in other fields. In the small community of scientists that studies bacteriophages, she was treasured both for her intellect and her warmth.
“There’s a sense we’ve lost one of our greatest colleagues,” Jardine said. “She is irreplaceable.”
Among her many passions, meditation was primary.
“You know she’s a scientist, but she’s unusual — she’s like a poet scientist,” said Puran Bair, co-founder of the Institute for Applied Meditation on the Heart, a meditation school in Tucson where Grimes took classes over the past 15 years. Indeed, among friends, Grimes was well known for the epistle-like poems she would write and give to them as gifts.
Grimes was almost finished with a two-year course called University of the Heart when she died. In her last months, Bair said Grimes drew on meditation to face the end with courage.
Even as she went through chemotherapy, Carson said, she believed meditation and spirituality would heal her.
“As a scientist, she had to deal with probabilities,” Carson said. “But she was really interested in possibilities.”
A lover of tulips, Grimes would order up to 700 bulbs for her garden each year. A share of those would live in pots of soil the walk-in refrigerator in her lab. Each February when the tulips would start to come in, staff from around her building would come in to visit and enjoy a pop of color.
Carson found it poignant that Grimes died on the first day of spring, her favorite season.
“It was just so Shelley.”
Besides her husband, Grimes is survived by her daughter, Fiona Carson; mother, Nancy Grimes, and siblings, Deidre Campbell and Sean Grimes. Services have been held.