Scientist Spotlight: Meet Sarah Highlander

Sarah Highlander Ph.D. is an esteemed scientist and professor who joined JCVI in La Jolla this year. She comes from a long line of academically successful Professors, including a great uncle who was a University Dean. As a young child, Sarah was influenced by her parents: her mother was a musician and her father was a Ph.D. chemical engineer. Sarah too was a musician and she still enjoys jazz and the opera. But it was her father’s scientific career that influenced her own decision to pursue scientific research as her career.

Dr. Sarah Highlander

Dr. Sarah Highlander

As a chemical engineer and early IT specialist, he shared his interests with her at the kitchen table by doing mathematical puzzles and simple experiments. They explored the impact light had on grass growth by placing plants in the closet. Then in high school, she had the opportunity to work on a microbiology project with the help of her father. Using agar slants from his colleague’s lab, she looked for antimicrobial features of bacteria in the soil. Even with these opportunities, her focus in the sciences wasn’t fully set until she began working as a technician in a fermentation research lab where she had the opportunity to work with plasmids after completing her bachelor’s degree. At this point, plasmids and restriction enzymes were not readily available and researchers had to isolate them in their labs. She was extremely successful as a technician and even published several papers and secured several patents.

This experience launched Highlander into Medical Microbiology. She went to the Sackler Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the New York University School of Medicine, where she earned her Ph.D. in 1985. With her curious nature and the bourgeoning field of biotechnology, she began to research the replication of DNA plasmids in Staphylococcus. She asked basic but as yet unanswered questions such as, “How are these molecules controlled in the cell?” and “How can they best be manipulated in the laboratory?” Her thesis involved characterizing small RNA molecules that control plasmid copy number.

During her Post-doctoral fellowship, she shifted her focus to infectious diseases and worked on vaccine development for a cattle disease called “shipping fever” at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Shipping fever is the most common and costly problem affecting calves. It accounts for major economic losses to the cattle producer by reducing average daily weight gain, impairs feed efficiency, and diminishes overall performance and health of beef calves. Vaccination is key to reduce the disease and Highlander’s research culminated in the development of a subunit vaccine that is still in use.

After her fellowship, she began her professorship at Baylor’s College of Medicine (BCM), where she continued her research into shipping fever. The primary bacterial agent in this disease is Mannheimia haemolytica, which is the same family as the human respiratory pathogen, Haemophilus influenzae. JCVI scientists were the first to sequence and publish the H flu genome in 1995. Dr. Highlander’s group performed extensive characterization of the M. haemolytica leukotoxin and developed numerous genetic tools for manipulation and tagging of the organism. She holds patents for subunit and live-attenuated vaccines to prevent shipping fever.

In 2002, Highlander founded Prokaryon Technologies, a for-profit company focused on animal health to prevent and control diseases associated with food animals. One of Prokaryon’s lead products was a genomics-derived vaccine to prevent shipping fever in cattle.

While leading and growing her company, Highlander stayed committed to her academic research interests and joined the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor. At BCM, she participated in genome sequencing of several pathogens (including M. haemolytica) and she moved to focus more on human pathogens. From 2006 to 2013, Highlander was a principal investigator for the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), a National Institutes of Health-funded program in which JCVI researchers were also key leaders.

In addition to her research, Highlander was involved in graduate and medical education at BCM. She was the co-director of the departmental graduate program for 15 years and directed and taught courses focused on bacterial physiology and molecular laboratory methods. Preparation for lectures and interactions with students helped her stay on top of new techniques and research, which in turn helped her further her own research. Sarah had the opportunity to mentor many graduate students both formally and informally.

At JCVI, Highlander is continuing her work on the microbes that live in and on the human body. Specifically she and her team are looking at the complex microbial communities that live in the human gut. While many microbes are associated with disease, most in the human body are associated with health. Highlander and her team are working to develop specific healthy bacterial mixtures that could be used treat conditions such recurrent Clostridium difficile diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease and others. She is also using bioinformatics tools to look for new causes of diarrhea. “I am delighted to be a part of the collaborative environment here at JCVI and to be surrounded by colleagues who share common interests in bacterial genetics, genomics, microbial physiology and pathogenesis. The microbiome group at JCVI is strong and I hope to be able to make significant contributions to ongoing and future projects here”.

Even in her personal life, Sarah researches, through her hobby of tracing her genealogy. She has been able to find family roots dating back to the 1500s. This detective work is challenging but it keeps her mind sharp and detailed oriented. She points out that learning family naming patterns can be critical to genealogy research just as algorithm development is to genomic research.

Never having lost that early scientific curiosity and excitement of discovery that her father instilled in her as a young girl, Sarah loves working in the laboratory at JCVI and asking questions. Her analytical and inquisitive nature is one of her greatest professional strengths. She is fascinated by the complexity of the microbial ecosystem in our bodies and the impact these microbes have on our health. As she says, “Microbes are going to continue to win through evolution. We need to figure out the next step to keep ahead!” Let’s hope Highlander and her team can win this battle.

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