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Prebys Research Hero: Awardee

Tatyana Sharpee

Professor, Edwin K. Hunter Chair, Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Dr. Sharpee is working on potentially groundbreaking research that could dramatically improve how we understand how the brain works. Her work is profoundly interdisciplinary, drawing on physics, mathematics, neuroscience, molecular biology, hyperbolic geometry, and even cosmology to help scientists better unlock the mysteries of the brain. As an educator, she is training the next generation of women and people of color to achieve the scientific breakthroughs of the future.

"Time and space are related and coupled by the speed of light. But the same thing works in the brain, except that it’s not the speed of light that is limitation, but the speed with which neurons communicate."

Dr. Tatyana Sharpee

Dr. Tatyana Sharpee’s Quest to Untangle the Ultimate Knot – The Brain

For Dr. Tatyana Sharpee, the Edwin K. Hunter Chair at the Salk Institute, it’s possible for a woman to go where no man has gone before. She is at the forefront of innovative research aimed at unlocking the intricacies of brain function. Her interdisciplinary work spans physics, mathematics, neuroscience, molecular biology, and even cosmology.

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.

Dr. Sharpee grew up in Ukraine, where she says she had “no choice” but to become a physicist or mathematician, realizing at some point that her parents and grandparents had steered her in that direction. She does love her work, though, noting that beyond borders or countries, “the laws of physics do not change.” She came to the US to pursue a graduate degree in physics at Michigan State, working on pure condensed matter research and solid-state physics. She was recruited into a program at University of California, San Francisco that sought to bring postdocs with PhDs in physics into the field of neuroscience.

Dr. Sharpee has two primary goals in her research. Her first goal is truly audacious – she is designing an algorithm that helps to sort out the tangled collection of wires in the inner cortex of the brain, which can help doctors to make predictions for how injuries like strokes or diseases like schizophrenia affect the brain. With a background in physics, she draws parallels between the geometry that describes the universe and the patterns within the brain, hinting at her universal algorithm, with a bit of Einstein thrown in: “Time and space are related and coupled by the speed of light. But the same thing works in the brain, except that it’s not the speed of light that is limitation, but the speed with which neurons communicate.”

Her second goal is slightly more “conventional” – to discover the most effective ways to reduce the effects of aging by understanding the limits of an organism's ability to repair itself, which is largely dependent on how much energy is available to it. Better understanding these factors could lead to better drugs and therapies.

As if her work wasn’t complicated enough, Dr. Sharpee takes it upon herself to be a great educator as well as a great scientist. “Good scientists might not always be good teachers, and good teachers might not always be good scientists,” she acknowledges. She drew on brain science to develop a system for motivating her students. She says, “For learning to happen, my students need to feel happy and unstressed,” so she has adopted a “no criticism” approach to teaching. Instead, she says, when a student has trouble with a problem, she’ll continue to simplify the problem until the student can make progress.

Dr. Sharpee’s combination of being truly audacious in her research and her clear commitment to nurturing the next generation of researchers is setting an important standard for the field. Though science is full of uncertainty, Dr. Sharpee’s work is firmly grounded in mathematics, physics, and offers so much promise for dramatic discoveries that could improve people’s lives for many years to come.  

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