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Sharpe Takes Successful Nontraditional Route to Higher Education

March 17, 2014
Man working in lab
Josh Sharpe, a UW senior majoring in molecular biology, isolates proteins during lab work in the Physical Sciences Building. (UW Photo)

In 2006, Josh Sharpe woke up one morning and decided he didn’t want to be the guy who goes through life unfulfilled in his work.

It doesn’t sound like he will. The University of Wyoming senior expects to graduate in May with a degree in molecular biology and has been accepted to Baylor’s College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, this fall.

“One of my lifelong goals has always been to be a scientist,” Sharpe says. “I never thought I could be one of them.”

For Sharpe, 35, getting to this point has been anything but a linear path.

Sharpe is a first-generation college student. Growing up with his mother -- first in Cheyenne and then in Buffalo -- he said there was no emphasis placed on education in his household.

“My family didn’t go to college,” he says. “I was flat afraid of it. I didn’t think I had the aptitude.”

After graduating from Buffalo High School, Sharpe said to himself, “What now? Go get a job?”

He did, working as a tire technician and pouring concrete. After 1 1/2 years of that, he said he realized this was “a young man’s game” and he wouldn’t be able to do that forever.

He then got a job at Echostar, working in network operations and engineering for the better part of a decade. While it was a good job, Sharpe says it wasn’t satisfying.

“At one point, I thought to myself I would be an old man providing TV to people. It was a good job, but I was unfulfilled,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the guy who retires from that.”

Time for a change

Knowing he had always had an interest in biology in school that, in part, stemmed from his childhood days catching turtles and frogs (and even a rattlesnake), Sharpe decided to attend Laramie County Community College. But he had to continue to work to pay for school.

So, he endured the grind of 40-hour work weeks at night and attended school during the day, often as the oldest student in many classes. He says many students were helpful in study groups, but he knew he didn’t have much in common with the younger students, many of whom were 10 years his junior.

“I had some wonderful students who I worked with. But I was focused on climbing a mountain,” he says of his mindset. “If you want to be good at something, you have to really focus.”

“I think, because of my fear of failure, I pushed myself so hard,” he adds. “Failure was not an option.”

At LCCC, he first concentrated on general studies, but gradually gravitated to taking more challenging biology, chemistry and math courses as he realized his biological interests and that he had an aptitude for the sciences. With the types of science questions Sharpe was asking, LCCC faculty pushed him in the direction of molecular biology.

“I had people who supported me and mentored my interests,” Sharpe says. “The reason I’ve been successful at UW is because of the experience I had at LCCC.”

At LCCC, Sharpe gained valuable research and laboratory time with biology instructor Ami Wangeline through UW’s IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program. He received an INBRE Transition Scholarship, awarded to outstanding life science students from Wyoming's community colleges where INBRE-sponsored research is conducted.

“I was allowed to work in a lab like a graduate student,” he recalls of his time at LCCC.

UW provides meaningful lab experience

After receiving his associate’s degree in biology from LCCC, he enrolled in UW’s undergraduate program in molecular biology. Because he was already in Wyoming, he says, “I didn’t have to overturn my life.” Plus, he says, UW is affordable. As part of the INBRE Transition Scholarship, he was expected to enroll at UW and participate in INBRE-supported research activities, including a series of laboratory experiences. After their first semester, students join a UW faculty member's lab, where they will conduct research for the remainder of their degree programs.

For Sharpe, there were adjustments, such as larger classes, some with as many as 120 students that took some getting used to.

“After a semester, I learned how to be successful in that environment,” he says.

Sharpe credits Rachel Watson, his academic adviser, and Krisztina Varga, his faculty mentor and a UW assistant professor of chemistry, with being his biggest supporters.

“She (Watson) is an absolutely incredible human being,” he says. “I think all educators are intelligent. But not all educators have heart.”

He credits Varga with continually pushing him to do more in the lab, ask more probing questions and further develop his research methods. Sharpe’s research focus has been isolating membrane proteins and mimicking environments in which they can thrive.

“I pride myself on being able to push myself. I’m never the smartest guy in the room, but I am almost always the hardest worker,” he continues. “Science is tedious, monotonous. You work weeks and months. Maybe, if you’re lucky enough, you get a result.”

The next step on the journey

Sharpe applied to 12 graduate schools and says he didn’t think he would get into any of them. To Sharpe’s surprise, all 12 accepted him to their doctoral programs.

“I didn’t think I would have any choices. It turns out I had all of my choices,” he says. “Baylor is probably the best biomedical school in the nation. They have 100,000 employees in their medical center. I want to be the best. To be the best, you have to work with the best.”

Baylor’s doctoral program is six years -- one in the classroom and five more in the lab, he says.

During his graduate school interviews, Sharpe says, reviewers were looking for someone who could step into a lab and be competent right away, and “already have their head wrapped around being a scientist.” His UW and LCCC experiences have given him that base experience and mindset.

“I’ve had really wonderful mentors, primary investigators and educators,” he says. “If I am able to grow into one of these wonderful people, I will have actually done something with my life.”

So, what does his mother now think of the value of education?

“The more I show it’s a healthy, happy route for me, she’s stood by me and been my cheerleader,” Sharpe says. “I really enjoy what I do. Education was the best thing that ever happened in my life.”

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