Shirley was raised by her mother in rural, segregated Georgia just before the national civil rights movement. As an African-American child in a small southern town, she encountered both prejudice and peer pressure that tried to discourage her determination to succeed.
Dr. McBay received the B.A. degree in Chemistry in 1954 summa cum laude at age 19; master's degrees in Chemistry and Mathematics from Atlanta University in 1957 and 1958 respectively; and a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Georgia --the first African- American to earn a doctorate from the University of Georgia-- in 1966.
Dr. McBay served for five years as Program Manager/Director in the Science Education Directorate of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and as a member of the faculty and administration at Spelman College in Atlanta over a fifteen-year period. At NSF, Dr. McBay directed two national programs designed to increase minority participation in science and engineering. While at Spelman, she held various positions including Professor of Mathematics, Department Head, Division Chair, and Associate Academic Dean.
She spent ten years as Dean for Student Affairs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In July 1990, McBay assumed the position of President of the Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network. QEM Network is a Washington, DC-based non-profit organization which, amongst other things, aims to get minority and non-minority communities to recognize that "quality education for minorities is critical to America's continuing prosperity and international leadership."
At QEM, Dr. McBay directed or provided leadership for numerous science and engineering-focused projects funded by major corporate or foundation philanthropic efforts as well as several federal agencies. The projects focused on broadening participation in STEM and/or achieving educational equity for underserved students and communities across the nation. She retired from this position in July 2016.
Dr. McBay also has served on numerous national committees focused on broadening participation in STEM including the National Academies’ Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline. Her many awards include the 2009 American Chemical Society (ACS) Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in the Chemical Sciences, sponsored by The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.