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Prebys Research Hero: Awardee

Sonia Sharma

Associate Professor, La Jolla Institute for Immunology

Dr. Sharma’s research focuses on a significantly understudied aspect of immunology – the differences in the immune system between males and females. In general, women tend to be more prone to autoimmunity and inflammation, and men have a less robust immune system and are more susceptible to viruses and infection. Dr. Sharma is particularly interested in how molecules in the blood can activate the brain’s immune system as a way to design treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

"The point isn’t to treat one population or another, it's to understand the differences in the diseases so we can get at the right treatment for the right person by taking into account their unique biological make-up."

Dr. Sonia Sharma

Dr. Sonia Sharma Uncovers Gender Disparities in Immunology

The complex nature of the immune system has long intrigued scientists. There’s the “good” side, which protects us from bacteria, viruses, and cancer. Then there’s the “bad” side, which causes inflammation and can use the body’s immune system to turn on itself. Even less well understood are differences in the immune system between women and men. Dr. Sonia Sharma, Associate Professor at the La Jolla Institute and Director of its Functional Genomics Center, is leading research that sheds light on these differences.  

She was recently awarded a $500,000 Prebys Research Heroes grant, part of a $10 million two-year initiative that celebrates the contributions female scientists make in the field of biomedical and medical research, and which honors outstanding San Diego scientists as a key lever to create a more innovative, equitable, and collaborative medical research system. 

According to Dr. Sharma, in general, women appear to have more robust immune systems and tend be more prone to autoimmunity and inflammation, whereas men can be considered to have weaker immune systems and can be more susceptible to virus infections. Her lab focuses on Alzheimer’s disease, which disproportionately affects women.  

Dr. Sharma notes that one in six women will develop Alzheimer’s versus one in eleven men. This statistic corrects for age, acknowledging that women tend to live longer. Moreover, women develop more aggressive Alzheimer’s than men and experience more rapid decline in memory loss and cognitive function, among other symptoms. The problem, according to Dr. Sharma, is that “we don’t know why.” She quickly adds, “The point isn’t to treat one population or another, it's to understand the differences in the diseases so we can get at the right treatment for the right person by taking into account their unique biological make-up.” 

Her lab is using its funding through the Prebys Research Heroes award to study inflammation in the brain, which originates with specialized immune cells called microglia. She and her team are studying the differences in these cells between women and men who developed Alzheimer’s compared to those who didn’t. This difference is key because, “Unless we address it, I don’t think we’re ever going to come to an effective treatment strategy,” notes Dr. Sharma. 

Dr. Sharma did not think she’d end up being a scientific researcher. At one point she thought that she’d pursue creative writing, but her passion for science won out. “I always loved science,” she says, “I realized I can be creative here.” 

Dr. Sharma’s experiences overcoming academic challenges instilled in her a commitment to creating a supportive research environment in her lab, and she has made a special commitment to nurture aspiring scientists from underrepresented backgrounds. Through mentorship and guidance, she works hard to create a space where her interns and graduate students can explore their scientific curiosity without fear of failure. Dr. Sharma emphasizes the importance of listening, constructive feedback, and maintaining a balance between support and independence for her team members. “They inspire me,” she says of the students she works with. “I’m so proud of having been their mentor.”  

The support systems she puts in place is especially significant considering the so-called 80-20 phenomenon, in which 80 percent of postdoctoral researchers are women, but the figure inverts over time. She is working to find ways in her lab to address systemic challenges faced by women, including limited networking opportunities for female researchers and poor support structures to accommodate work-life balance, particularly for those balancing research careers with family responsibilities.  

As Dr. Sharma continues with her research, her commitment to learning more about the links between gender, immunology, and disease leads her. She not only seeks to advance our understanding of diseases like Alzheimer's but also advocates for greater inclusivity and equity within the scientific community. “I’m incredibly grateful,” she says of the award. “We’re just going full steam ahead, and we look forward to doing the work.” 

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