Genomic Diversity Facility
151 Biotechnology Bldg
Sharon E. Mitchell, Ph.D. is Director of the Genomic Diversity Facility at the Cornell University Institute of Biotechnology. The Genomic Diversity Facility provides cutting-edge, high throughput genotyping, informatics and genomics consultation services to the global scientific community. Dr. Mitchell’s career began as a Research Entomologist with the USDA/ARS, Center for Medical, Agricultural, and Veterinary Entomology (Gainesville, FL) where she developed molecular probes for identifying cryptic species of Anopheles mosquitoes that spread malaria throughout tropical regions of the world. This work not only provided a means for identifying mosquito species that could not be distinguished using taxonomic keys, it also provided valuable epidemiological information by singling out mosquitoes that had fed on humans and distinguishing those that were infected with malaria parasites. Later, Dr. Mitchell worked at the USDA/ARS Plant Genetic Resources Conservation Unit, a plant germplasm repository (seed bank) located just south of Atlanta, GA. Here, she worked on developing low-cost, high-throughput genotyping methodologies for characterizing plant genetic diversity, both in the germplasm collection and in natural populations (i.e., wild relatives). In 1998, Dr. Mitchell was employed by Cornell University. Before moving to her current position, she managed the laboratory program for the Institute for Genomic Diversity, an endowed institute devoted to research and training in genetic diversity, plant genomics, biodiversity conservation, and solving problems affecting global food security.
Why I Became a Scientist:
I was born in rural Tennessee and spent the first six years of my life on my grandfather’s farm. From as far back as I can remember, I was fascinated by “all creatures, great and small” and had a burning desire to understand how things worked. I was mesmerized by the fact that my doll’s eyes would close when I laid her down so I grabbed a screw driver and pried off the doll’s head. My big discovery that doll’s eyes were weighted did not impress my mother, who was certain that I would grow up to be a serial killer.
When I was six, my family moved to Florida, a tropical paradise ruled by bugs! I spent my time observing the miniature world at my feet and collecting insects, tadpoles, toad stools, lichens, worms, snakes, shells, fossils and rocks. My room was my museum. I also read anything I could find about the natural sciences, including my dad’s fishing magazines.
My parents neither encouraged nor enthusiastically discouraged my early interest in science. They had too many problems of their own. Both of my parents worked but we never had money because of their substance abuse issues. My siblings and I were essentially left to fend for ourselves. When I was in Junior High School, my parents were divorced and the home situation grew even worse. I really could have used an adult mentor to help through these hard times, but I did not have anyone.
Despite the bad home situation, I always knew I wanted a college education…. my ticket out! Throughout Junior High and High School, my interests expanded. I developed a love for music as well as biology. I continued to take advanced courses in science and math but I also played woodwinds (clarinet, flute, sax and oboe) in the school marching band, dance band and orchestra. My Junior year, I was accepted on scholarship to a private school and upon graduation, I received a Florida Board of Reagents Scholarship for college.
As a child, I was bitten by the “science bug”. Thankfully, there is no known treatment for curiosity other than the wonder created by discovering something new. I have acquired a very broad background in the biological sciences and this, coupled with the ability to switch from working on animals to working on plants, have made me a successful scientist. The transition was made easier because I work in the realm of molecular biology. DNA chemistry is DNA chemistry. It does not matter if the DNA comes from a mosquito or a pumpkin seed.
As a youngster, I went to the Tallahassee, Florida public schools for elementary, junior high and two years of high school. My last two years of high school were completed at a private school, the Florida State University Demonstration School (Florida High). I received a tuition scholarship to attend Florida State University, where I received a BS degree in Biological Sciences (minor in Chemistry). At this point, I received no financial support from my family so I needed a salary to pay for books and living expenses. I got a job doing statistical analyses for the State of Florida, Department of Education, where I worked during college and a few months after graduation. I received a Master of Science in Medical Entomology from the University of Florida and later completed a PhD in Insect Genetics (minor in biochemistry) from the same institution. Go ‘Noles…. Go Gators!