At the Crossroads of Science and Diversity

National Institutes of Health grant supports circadian clock research for a first-year biology graduate student

Brandi Sharp

Brandi Sharp

In 2007, Dr. Herman Wijnen was awarded a four-year NIH grant to study transcriptional output pathways of the circadian clock. As of October 27, 2008, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) awarded a diversity supplement to the grant to support the research of Brandi Sharp, a first-year graduate student in Wijnen’s laboratory. 

The NIGMS makes these awards to improve the diversity of the research workforce by supporting and recruiting students, post doctorates, and eligible investigators from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups; individuals with disabilities; and financially disadvantaged backgrounds who have inhibited their ability to pursue a career in health-related research.  As an African American woman, Sharp represents a minority that is severely underrepresented not only among the current and past graduate student population in the Department of Biology, but also among the national scientific workforce at large.  In fact, only one female African American graduate student has received a degree from the Department of Biology since 1949.
 
The NIGMS award is nearly $90,000.00 over two years and it will be used to support Sharp’s Master's research project, which is aimed at investigating the function of a newly discovered regulatory DNA sequence element in directing daily time keeping. The promoter element termed in question was discovered by their collaborator, Felix Naef, from the Polytechnical University in Lausanne, Switzerland, when he aligned the sequences of circadian clock-controlled genes from 12 different fruit fly species.

“Circadian clocks are so core to the survival and physiological activities of animals, plants and bacteria,” says Sharp who is drawn to the field because of the opportunity it affords her to “witness and explore incredible phenomena.”

Sharp’s thesis work is focused on testing whether the new regulatory element provides information concerning the time and place at which these genes are expressed. If so, she will further determine the role of the sequence element in the way that fruit flies keep time and provide time-of-day information to rhythmic behaviors such as the sleep/wake cycle. Because the daily time keeping mechanisms of fruit flies and humans are remarkably similar, this work is expected to be relevant to the regulation of daily biological rhythms in humans as well. This could be relevant not just to diseases associated with disruptions of these mechanisms (sleep disorders, cancer, diabetes), but also more generally to diagnostic and treatment procedures involving bodily functions that show regular daily variations.

Sharp regards her personal ambition and enthusiasm as the sources that drive her educational pursuits. She hopes to obtain a Ph.D. and spread this enthusiasm by conducting and supervising research, teaching, and mentoring others; particularly other women and African-Americans interested in science.  Says Sharp of her career choices, “I cannot imagine any greater joy than to continue experiencing that child-like wonder from observing biological mechanisms of life.”