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New faculty profile: Nathaniel Sharp explores process of genetic mutation

Nathaniel Sharp joined the faculty in the Department of Genetics as an assistant professor in January 2019.

What is your background?
I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. I did my B.S. and Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto, and trained as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I was previously a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia, in the Biodiversity Research Center and Zoology Department.

How did you get into your field of research?
I enjoyed doing science before I realized what I was doing, and that you could make a career out of it. I got into evolutionary biology after reading The Origin of Species as a teenager, and from freshman undergrad courses. I later learned I could use genetics experiments to tackle big questions in evolution.

What is the main goal of your current research program?
My research is focused on the mutation process. All genetic variation originally comes about because of mutation, so this process is fundamentally important in biology. I want to learn more about both the molecular circumstances that give rise to new mutations, as well as the evolutionary processes that determine the rate, types, and fitness effects of mutations that occur.

What attracted you to UW-Madison?
UW-Madison has been home to many prominent thinkers in genetics and evolution, and continues to play an outsized role in biological science research. I’m looking forward to being able to interact with lots of people from various departments who have shared research interests.

What was your first visit to campus like?
I first came here for a conference, and I had fun touring around campus and hanging out at the Memorial Union Terrace. The weather was great.

What are you most enjoying so far about working here?
Everyone here is really friendly, even by Canadian standards.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea?
Working on basic unsolved problems in genetics can actually help us tackle lots of applied problems, including the emergence of pathogens, adaptation to global change, and genetic disease risk. The Wisconsin Idea is a great reminder to connect basic and applied research.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
I do some of my work with fruit flies, and we often want to cross particular strains to one another. To make sure the flies only mate in the way we want, we have to separate the males and females when they’re still young. This is called “sexing virgins.” Now if you hear Drosophilists talking about all the virgins they collected you’ll know what they mean. Also when we’re done with flies we toss them in a candy dish full of oil called the “morgue.” Spilling the morgue is one of the most serious risks of fruit fly research.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I plan to start biking once the snow melts, but maybe I’ll just get a bike with giant snow tires. I’m also really looking forward to paddling on the lakes.

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