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ATC Biotechnology graduate Sharon King Keller earns Ph.D. in cellular biology

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Danielsville resident Sharon King Keller, a graduate of the Biotechnology program at Athens Technical College, successfully defended her doctoral thesis this week at the University of Georgia, making her the second of two Athens Technical College Biotechnology graduates to complete a Ph.D. since 2012. Ms. Keller earned her Ph.D. in cellular biology.

Zosha McKinney, who graduated from the Biotechnology program in 2007, earned her Ph.D. in neurophysiology from UGA this past year. Two other graduates of the Biotechnology program at Athens Technical College are in their second year of doctoral studies, said Andreas Heltzel, a Biotechnology faculty member. 

“All four are a reflection of our excellent educational and training efforts in the Biotechnology department at Athens Technical College led by Dr. Jeff Rapp (Biotechnology program chair) and a collection of outstanding faculty members second to none,” Dr. Heltzel said.

Interested in the study of parasites, Ms. Keller concentrated her doctoral research on a phospholipase C enzyme in a parasite known as Trypanosoma brucei, the pathogenic agent of African sleeping sickness. She has been investigating the enzyme’s functional role in a signaling pathway in the parasite to determine if a drug can be developed that would be more effective than current protocols being used for sleeping sickness. Ms. Keller’s academic and research work earned her the 2012 $10,000 ARCS Global Impact Grant from the Achievement Rewards for College Students Foundation. The foundation presented her the grant in November.

Ms. Keller also recently accepted a position as assistant professor of biology at Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs and will begin her new job this fall.

She is a 1992 graduate of Madison County High School, and has always been interested in biology, she said. After high school, Ms. Keller joined the workforce and held several different jobs before giving birth to a daughter, Brooklynn, in 1995. Ms. Keller’s new role as a single mom and the unpredictability of the job market convinced her that she needed to pursue post-secondary education.

“It was the birth of my daughter that got me thinking seriously about what I wanted out of life,” Ms. Keller said. “I started reading a lot about different career paths for biology — I learned my choices were not limited to lab work using animals. I started thinking about what I liked and potential areas for growth in the job market. Biotechnology was one of those areas.”

So she enrolled at Athens Technical College in 2000 and began taking one class at a time, while she continued working full-time at Levolor Home Fashions in Athens. She finished her associate of applied science degree in Biotechnology in 2004. In 2004, she transferred her credits to UGA’s cellular biology program, and she finished her four-year degree in 2007. She joined the graduate program in January 2008. 

She credits her success to Dr. Heltzel and former Athens Technical College instructor Dr. Julianne Braun.

“My journey began at Athens Technical College, and the college played a vital role in making all this possible,” she said.

The two faculty members helped open her eyes to the possibilities beyond Athens Technical College, she added.

“Dr. Braun and Dr. Heltzel were very instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my Biotechnology degree further,” Ms. Keller said. “At that time, I didn’t think it was possible. Students just don’t realize that if you want it, you can do it.”

Her time at Athens Technical College provided an “invaluable experience” for her, Ms. Keller said.

“I learned so much as a student, especially with all the hands-on work we did and the mentorship of my professors,” she explained. “I didn’t realize until I got to a larger institution how much that means and how much you get out of the one-on-one instruction.”

She encourages other Athens Technical College students to consider their time at the college as a starting point.

“If students want to do more and extend their careers, there are always possibilities to do that,” she said.

Ms. Keller hopes to eventually land a position as a full professor, and she intends to continue her research. She expects to spend her summers pursuing research.

In the meantime, her daughter Brooklynn just graduated from Madison County High School and will spend one semester at Athens Technical College before transferring to UGA in January.