Faculty and Teaching Staff Stories

Philip A. Sharp

Phil Sharp PhotoInstitute Professor, Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Nobel Laureate

Hoeing tobacco in a dusty field that seems endless on a hot summer day on a small farm in Kentucky is the kind of activity that makes a youngster dream of a beautiful, lush green college campus reading books and socializing with his fellow students. I was that youngster. My parents, Joseph W. Sharp who passed away a few years ago, and A. Katherine Sharp with whom I talk regularly, were children of farmers for about five generations and neither had been able to extend their education beyond high school. Luckily, although they had no means, they wanted me, their only son, to attend college and encouraged me to save my money from selling a small amount of tobacco each year for this cause. I was more than willing to do so.

As an overall good but not great student in high school, too interested in social life and sports, many teachers gave me special attention, particularly in math and science because I was quite good and very interested in both of these subjects. In fact, there have been teachers and educators that pushed and helped me reach my potential. However, schools in rural America in those days were short on advising their students about college options and opportunities available, and I only applied to one small college in the mountains of the state, Union College. My interest in chemistry and math grew exponentially during those undergraduate years leading to a doctoral degree in chemistry from the University of Illinois. So, although I started as a chemist, I ended up as a molecular biologist. The transition started during my postdoctoral years at Caltech, advanced while working as a staff scientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and then landed me at MIT as a faculty member in the Center for Cancer Research (now the Koch Institute) and the Department of Biology in 1974. My meager savings that started with my mother’s advice on the tobacco farm, and grew through other summer jobs, covered my first two years of college. The rest came from teaching assistantships and federal loans. This was by far the best investment I have ever made, even beyond the returns of investing in biotechnology.

I was thrilled that I was able to share my successes over the years with my parents who were somewhat puzzled by my description of research in cellular and cancer biology. However, they understood that it was something big and important and that their son was right in the middle of it. They proudly accompanied me to Sweden when I received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of split genes and before this to a number of other prize ceremonies. They were also quite fascinated by my co-founding of Biogen in 1978 (now Biogen Idec), one of the first biotech companies located on the edge of MIT, and now the oldest independent biotech company. Then came the founding of Alnylam, a biotechnology company focused on developing RNAi as a new type of therapeutic agent. The discovery of RNA Interference (RNAi) was by Craig Mello, Professor at the University of Massachusetts and by my former graduate student, Andy Fire, now Professor at Stanford University; both received the Nobel Prize for this discovery.

Biogen Idec and Alnylam employ thousands of scientists and other employees in Cambridge and elsewhere and have developed life-saving drugs.

Over the years at MIT, I have taught many undergraduate students both in classrooms and in my lab. Graduate students together with postdoctoral fellows have made my life exciting and my lab a fun place to work. I cannot thank each of them enough. We were also privileged to work in an institution like MIT where it is easy to do first class scientific research, as our colleagues, students, and leaders are committed to excellence and striving to make a difference in the world.

Over the years at MIT, I have also advised many first generation freshmen, a group of very bright and successful students, equal to any other group of students at MIT.

Being first generation gave me the motivation and tenacity to do something out of the ordinary. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.