Phillip A. Sharp

Born: June 6, 1944 | Falmouth, KY, US
Photograph of Phillip A. Sharp

Phillip A. Sharp

Phillip A. Sharp's oral history interview begins with a discussion of his family, then discusses his childhood in Falmouth, Kentucky. He received his BA in chemistry and math from Union College in 1966. Then, Sharp went on to earn his PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois. Sharp went to Caltech initially for his post-doctoral studies, but after three years he joined James Watson's virology lab at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to learn more about cell biology. In 1974, Sharp accepted an invitation at the newly created Center for Cancer Research at MIT. In 1977, Sharp and Richard J. Roberts discovered split genes, which led to the discovery of RNA splicing for which they shared the Nobel Prize in 1993. Sharp eventually became head of the biology department and director of the Center for Cancer Research. Moreover, Sharp was instrumental in the establishment of one of the first biotech companies, Genentech, Inc and he helped establish Biogen, Inc. Sharp concludes the interview with reflections on  the significance of the neuroscience research community that currently surrounds and includes Harvard University. 

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0268
No. of pages: 117
Minutes: 630

Interview Sessions

Arnold Thackray, David C. Brock and Mona Ashiya
28 January, 29 May and 20 November 2003
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

Phillip A. Sharp's interview begins with a discussion of his family. He details his genealogy, from his great grandparents to his current extended family. Sharp then discusses his childhood in Falmouth, Kentucky, near Cincinnati, Ohio. After graduating from Falmouth High School, Sharp attended Union College, where he met his wife, Ann Holcombe. He received his BA in chemistry and math from Union College in 1966. Then, Sharp went on to earn his PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois. Sharp went to Caltech initially for his post-doctoral studies, but after three years he joined James Watson's virology lab at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to learn more about cell biology research. In 1974, Sharp accepted an invitation to join the research team at the newly created Center for Cancer Research at MIT. In 1977, Sharp and Richard J. Roberts discovered split genes, which led to the discovery of RNA splicing. This was a significant discovery for which Sharp and Roberts shared the Nobel Prize in 1993. Phillip Sharp worked his way up through the ranks of MIT's administration, eventually becoming head of the biology department and director of the Center for Cancer Research. Moreover, Sharp was instrumental in the establishment of one of the first biotech companies, Genentech, Inc. He also worked with a team of researchers to establish Biogen, Inc. In 2000, Sharp became the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Sharp concludes the interview with reflections on his rapid rise through MIT's administration and the significance of the neuroscience research community that currently surrounds and includes Harvard University. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1966 Union College BA Chemistry and Mathematics
1969 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

1966 to 1969
Research Assistant, Department of Chemistry

California Institute of Technology

1969 to 1971
Postdoctoral Fellow

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

1971 to 1972
Postdoctoral Fellow
1972 to 1974
Senior Research Investigator

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1974 to 1979
Associate Professor, Center for Cancer Research and Department of Biology
1979 to 1999
Professor, Center for Cancer Research and Department of Biology
1982 to 1985
Associate Director, Center for Cancer Research
1985 to 1991
Director, Center for Cancer Research
1991 to 1999
Head, Department of Biology
1991 to 1999
Salvador E. Luria Professor of Biology
1999 to 2005
Institute Professor

McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

2000 to 2005
Director

Honors

Year(s) Award
1974 to 1979

Recipient of an American Cancer Society Career Development Award

1980

The National Academy of Sciences' US Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology

1980

The Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry

1983

Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

1983

Member, National Academy of the Sciences

1985

The Harvey Society Lecture

1985

The Howard Ricketts Award, University of Chicago

1986 to 1987

Class of 1941 Professorship (Chair), Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1986

The General Motors Research Foundation Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Prize for Cancer Research

1986

The Gairdner Foundation International Award, Canada

1986

The New York Academy of Sciences Award in Biological and Medical Sciences

1987 to 1990

Councilor, National Academy of Sciences

1987

Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

1987 to 1992

The John D. MacArthur Professorship (Chair), Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1988

Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, Columbia University

1988

The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award

1990

The Dickson Prize, University of Pittsburgh

1991

Member, Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences

1991

Member, American Philosophical Society

1991

Honorary Degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, Union College

1992

The Salvador E. Luria Professorship (Chair), Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1993

The Mendel Medal Award, Villanova University

1993

The James R. Killian, Jr. , Faculty Achievement Award, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1993

Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology

1993

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

1994

Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, University of Kentucky

1995

Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, Bowdoin College

1996

Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, University of Tel Aviv

1996

Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, Albright College

1998

Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, University of Glasgow, Scotland

1999

Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, Thomas More College

1999

The Benjamin Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society

1999

Honorary Doctor of Medicine, Uppsala University, Sweden

1999

Doctor (honoris causa), University of Buenos Aires

2001

The Walker Prize from the Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusetts

2001

The Norman Davidson Lecture, California Institute of Technology

2001

Honorary Doctorate, Northern Kentucky University

2002

Honorary Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland

2002

The Storer Life Sciences Lectures, University of California, Davis

2002

Biotechnology Heritage Award, Biotechnology Industry Organization and the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education
1

Discussion of family life. Boyhood activities and interests. The role of religion in Sharp family. Important teachers during early education. Description of current extended family. Discussion of segregation during youth.

College and Graduate Studies
10

Attending Union College. Financial situation during college years. Marriage to Ann Holcombe. Discussion of influential faculty members at Union College. Attending graduate school at the University of Illinois. Life at Union College. Research under Victor A. Bloomfield at Illinois. Working at Caltech in Norman Davidson's lab. Mapping cellular genes. The significance of Ronald Davis on Sharp's life.

The Move to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
25

Moving to James Watson's virology lab. Description of a peer group with Sharp's interests. Birth of second child. Being selected to work at MIT's Center for Cancer Research. Discussion about molecular biology's academic identity. Working with Joe Sambrook. Studying the adenovirus in London. Description of his work at CSHL.

The Center for Cancer Research
36

Starting a lab. Group meetings at MIT. Salvador E. Luria's personality. Applying for grants at MIT. Sharp's identity at the Center for Cancer Research. The history of biotechnology.

The Discovery of RNA Splicing
44

Description of academic environment before splicing discovery. Working with Jane S. Flint and Susan M. Berget. How RNA splicing was discovered. The academic community's reaction to the splicing discovery. The significance of viruses. MIT and the place of biological sciences. MIT's relationship with the Whitehead Institute. The academic environment surrounding MIT. The Asilomar Conference.

Entrepreneurial Ventures
53

Looking back at the biology community around MIT. The International Nickel Company and its future. The creation of Biogen, Inc. Organizing labs in Geneva and at Cambridge. Sharp's relationship with Walter Gilbert. Working at Biogen. Biogen's structure. The board of directors at Biogen. The rules at MIT during the late 1970s. Becoming director of the Center for Cancer Research. Discouraging periods at Biogen. Walter Gilbert as the CEO of Biogen. Walter Gilbert's personality.

Further Reflections on RNA Splicing
69

Post-discovery study of RNA splicing. Conclusions from Tom Maniatis's lab. Working with Paula J. Grabowski. The role of "snurps" in splicing. Robert G. Roeder's development of the first in vitro reaction. Competition in the splicing research field. The Center for Cancer Research's relationship to Ajinomoto USA, Inc. Sharp's business relationship with Bristol-Myers Squibb Company. Discussion of Sharp's research beginning in the 1980s.

The Nobel Prize
77

Other Nobel Prize winners in Sharp's field. Soon after winning the Nobel Prize. The significance of the Prize to Sharp. Nobel Laureates at MIT. RNAi research. Thomas Tuschl's work with RNAi. The significance of RNAi in C-elegans. Fraud charges against David Baltimore. Ivan R. Cottrell's donation to David Baltimore and MIT. The results of the fraud controversy.

Sharp's Influence on MIT
93

Progression through MIT's administration. His brief presidency of MIT. The McGovern Institute and the current state of Biogen, Inc. The neuroscience programs outside of MIT.

Notes
100
Index
103

About the Interviewer

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.

Mona Ashiya

Mona Ashiya was a research associate at Harvard Business School and an independent consultant. She received her PhD from the University of Pittsburgh in 1998. She subsequently held research positions at UC Berkeley, Pittsburgh, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of Harvard University, during which time she was awarded the Leukemia Research Foundation Fellowship.