Katie Sharp '03
Katie Sharp '03 - (University of Rochester; Stanford University)
Fruit flies have followed Katie Sharp for many years and through many transitions. Not literally, perhaps. But the tiny insects have been an important part of her life since her days in Ernest Polansky’s Biology class at Sandia Prep. Sharp, ’03, uses fruit flies in her work as a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Berkeley Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. With fruit flies as her model organism, Sharp studies epithelial cell polarity and function.
"Tubes or sheets of epithelial cells make up many of our organs, including kidneys, liver, lungs, and intestines, to name a few," she explains. They are polarized with a distinct top and bottom side, and this polarity is crucial to their proper function. “For example, without it, your kidneys can’t filter blood,” Sharp says. “Also, most human cancers come from epithelial cells that have lost polarity and started growing out of control.” Researchers don’t understand very well how this polarity is established or maintained. Sharp hopes her research will contribute to scientists’ understanding of how disrupted polarity causes cancers and other diseases.
Fruit flies are Sharp’s organism of choice because “they’re small and cheap, their genetics are easy to manipulate, and because their cells and genes are very similar to our own,” she explains. Sharp first worked with fruit flies during Polansky’s Biology II class. “Mr. Polansky’s class was the first time I really understood the idea that you can learn things by doing experiments,” she says. “It opened my eyes to the idea of a career in research and prompted me to seek out lab experience in college.”
She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry, with a minor in French, from the University of Rochester in 2007, and a Ph.D. in Genetics from Stanford in 2016.
Sharp spends most of her time reading the scientific literature, planning and executing experiments, and analyzing her data. While she enjoys being responsible for planning her time, deciding what work to do and following her interests, “It can be hard because when you’re struggling, you have to keep yourself motivated,” she says.
“Scientific research requires a lot of relentless determination, resilience in the face of disappointing data, and optimism that you’ll discover something eventually,” Sharp adds. “It’s not uncommon to have months of disappointing or confusing results.”
The reward, however, “is when you get a great result or have a flash of insight and you’re the first person in the world to know a new piece of information. Then the fun begins because you get to tell everyone about it by publishing papers and talking to other scientists. That’s the part of my job I love the most.”
During college, Sharp worked in a research lab studying T-cell activation. After graduation, she spent a year teaching English to high school students in Lyon, France, “which was mostly just an excuse to live abroad for a year,” she says.
She landed in Boston for her next job, as a research assistant at Harvard Medical School. From there, Sharp headed to Stanford, where she worked as a graduate student while earning her Ph.D. During a 2005 summer study abroad program in France run by the University of Rochester, she met her now-husband, Toby Teel. They married in 2013.
Sharp, an Albuquerque native, attended Prep for grades 6-12 and describes herself as a “very diligent” student. Outdoor Leadership Program camping trips are among this Lion’s fondest memories. Sharp credits her science classes and teachers at Prep, especially Polansky and former chemistry teacher Leigh Thompson, with putting her on the path to a research career. “Along the way, I’ve considered other options, but you can really draw a pretty straight line from Mr. Polansky and Ms. Thompson to my job now,” she says. Still, Prep’s emphasis on learning to write well was perhaps the most important preparation for college and career. “A career as an academic scientist requires strong writing skills to win grants and fellowships to fund your work as well as to get your work published,” Sharp says. Sharp’s long-term goal is to become a professor.
When she’s not studying her fruit flies, Sharp enjoys cooking and baking. “I’m always trying to make ever more impressive desserts. My husband always teases me because I remember events in my life based on what I was eating at the time. I’ll say, ‘Don’t you remember when so-and-so told us they were engaged? We were eating that really good chocolate mousse.’ ”She also loves spending time outside, especially biking, taking Pilates classes, and exploring restaurants and cuisines. “My husband and I are always on the hunt for the best ice cream, the most creative brunch, and really excellent Vietnamese food," she says.
Sharp’s advice to Prep students as they venture into the world? Keep an open mind. “Just follow your interests in college and don’t worry too much about what specific jobs a particular major prepares you for,” she explains. “If you do things you love and take advantage of interesting and exciting opportunities as they present themselves, you’ll be okay. Use your college summers wisely: study abroad, travel, do a cool internship or research project. It’s those experiences that will help you figure out what you want to do next.”