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Erin O'Shea: She Has a Love for Cool Science

First published May 2003

Like most budding scientists, Erin O'Shea had a memorable science teacher who fostered the interest that would later become a career. But few researchers can attribute their first lab experience to trying to avoid a summer of mowing lawns.

"My father owned a construction company," explains O'Shea, who grew up as one of five children in Leroy, a small town in upstate New York. "Every summer we would have to mow lawns and paint houses," she recalls.

Instead of being part of the family crew, O'Shea spent the summer after her freshman year at Smith College doing research in a lab. The rest, as they say, is history. "Once I started doing research," O'Shea recalls, "I found out that's really what I liked doing." She was hooked on the intellectual stimulation of investigation. "That's still my motivation."

That motivation propelled O'Shea down her chosen career path. At the age of 26, she earned a PhD in structural biology from MIT. She had completed her doctoral program in an astounding two and a half years. "I just thought of something that was a good idea and got a lot of papers in a really short period of time," she explains.

Now, at 35, O'Shea has been promoted to professor and appointed vice chair of the department of biochemistry and biophysics. In her typically modest and down-to-earth style, O'Shea says she doesn't think much about being so young and accomplished. "I made some good choices and I learned a lot of stuff and I've made contributions to different fields," she says. "There's always more to do."

That can-do attitude is an inspiration for those who work closely with O'Shea, says collaborator and fellow biochemistry professor Joe DeRisi (see "SARS Stars," page 50). "She's extremely energetic and she has an infectious love for cool science," DeRisi says.

O'Shea and DeRisi were among the first scientists to move to the new Mission Bay campus where their groups occupy neighboring labs. O'Shea is thrilled with her space in Genentech Hall. "It's great," she says of the laboratory she agrees is a scientist's dream.

O'Shea also says she likes the new mix of colleagues. "My lab is close to others' that are doing different things that are of real interest to me," O'Shea says.

New neighbors may turn into future collaborators, she says. But, true to form, it's the probability of finding inspiration in a hallway conversation that O'Shea is really looking forward to. "It's not just about collaboration, but the intellectual discussion about science."

The move has meant some challenges, but none that O'Shea cannot overcome. "The plus is that we're really concentrated. The disadvantage is we lose the opportunity to work closely with people doing clinically oriented work," she says. But, she is quick to add, "If you want to have interactions with other people on other campuses, you'll do it. It can be done."

Another benefit of working on the new campus is its proximity to Pacific Bell Park. "I'm excited to be in this part of the city, down near the water and the ballpark," she says. Lab outings to the ballpark, which sometimes also take members of the lab to the East Bay, will become more convenient.

"I enjoy going to games. I'm more of a 49ers fan. I like football and basketball. But I do follow Barry Bonds," O'Shea explains.

O'Shea's love of sports is something she shares with fiancé Doug Jeffery. During basketball season, the two sometimes head north to watch the Sacramento Kings play. Weekends, they take their interest to the greens, playing golf on San Francisco's public courses.

O'Shea also spends a lot of time--both at work and socially--with members of her lab, a tight-knit group of eight postdoctoral fellows and eight graduate students. At this point in her career, she says, she has put mentoring at the top of her priority list. "I'm finally getting used to running a lab and managing other people, helping others to maximize their potential."

Making important contributions to science is only part of O'Shea's definition of success. "I think it's important to train the next generation of scientists." Members of the O'Shea lab say they appreciate the interest she takes in their careers. "She's a very good advisor: leaves you alone but not for too long," says postdoc Dennis Wykoff.

At O'Shea's suggestion, Wykoff plans to seek out teaching opportunities before hitting the job market, something he might not have the support to do in other labs. "She keeps us going," he says.

What keeps the entire lab going is the groundbreaking science. The lab's current focus is on proteomics, the study of the function of proteins. The completion of the yeast genome makes her work possible. "We're basically developing tools and reagents that will allow us to study the function and localization of all the proteins in budding yeast," O'Shea explains.

"The particular things we're doing, nobody else is doing. That's really an exciting thing," O'Shea says. What she and her collaborators discover will be of the utmost interest to those working on human proteomics. That's because, as eukaryotes, yeast serve as an excellent model system for the structure and function of human cells. "We're really on at least a part of the cutting edge," O'Shea says. "That's fun," she adds with a smile.

And what will come next for O'Shea? "Well, my life's pretty full now," she says. "Later on I certainly aspire to be in some leadership position." The future likely holds more accomplishments for O'Shea. "I definitely feel like I haven't done the important work that I think my lab is capable of doing."

Erin O'Shea. Photo by Christine Jegan.

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