The First-Person Project

Penny (Komusin) Sharpe ’89

Derry, NH

Research Scientist, Pfizer, Andover, MA

Major: Biology

Minor: Psychology

I had a crush on my sixth-grade science teacher. He made the study of the animal kingdom really fun. I wanted to be a teacher like him. That’s where my interest in science first started. I grew up in Danville, New Hampshire, and went through the Timberlane School District.

When it came time to consider colleges, I chose Keene State. It was close enough to home but not too close. It had a beautiful campus and the Education Department had a good reputation. I went in as a biology major, with the idea that I would get a teaching certificate on top of that. The teaching part kind of fizzled when I went to observe at Monadnock High School. I realized that I’d been a wallflower in high school and shy with kids so close to my age. I decided to stay on just the biology path.

I liked biology, but I didn’t get involved with any of the science organizations like the Biology Club. I branched out. I met a lot of people through my dorm who were part of WKNH, the college radio station, so I got involved, too. I ended up being a DJ; I loved to play music during my time slot. The student general manager, who is a good friend, would call me up and say, “I’m hearing you say ‘um.’ And don’t forget to announce the time.” All those things you have to think about when you’re on the air. That led me to take a voice and diction class and a speech class. Those were really great for me and helpful to this day. It all translates into life in the end. The radio station was great because there was such a mix of people with different majors, all brought together because of their love of music. I have great memories of my time with those friends.

After I realized I didn’t want to be a teacher, there was always the question: What was I going to do with a biology degree? I really didn't have any idea at all. The labs at school were fun. I loved my invertebrate zoology class. We were out in the field, looking for bugs and identifying them. In my genetics class we got to go to the lab off hours and count fruit flies. But as far as a career path, I just thought I’d try to find something. My sisters were both in the medical field, so I figured maybe I could get a job at a hospital working in a lab or something like that.

After graduation, I went home and worked at Friendly’s for a while since I’d worked at the Friendly’s in Keene. Weekly I looked through newspaper help-wanted sections for anything that looked science-related. I ended up being really, really fortunate. I went to an open house at a company in Wilmington, Massachusetts, called Polymer Technology, a subsidiary of Bausch and Lomb. It was more chemistry-based than biology-based. I got hired in their quality control lab, analyzing the raw materials that went into ridged gas permeable contact lenses. After a couple of years, I moved with my supervisor into a research group that was looking at the development of the next best contact lens material. From there, I shifted into a brand new toxicology lab, where we tested contact lens solutions on cells that we grew up from corneas. That was definitely more biology-based than what I had been doing. It was really cool being a part of starting up a lab for that purpose.

But Polymer moved its research and development group to Rochester, New York – too far away for me. So I was on the job search again after seven years. I loved working in that environment, so I wanted to get into another lab. Fortunately, I got a call from someone I had worked for over those seven years who knew me and knew my experience. I ended up working for Genzyme in Allston, Massachusetts, in a quality control lab with a biologics focus. The company was making medication for people with Gaucher’s Disease. That’s when you start to see how what you’re doing really affects people. I get all teary-eyed when I think about it. We’d see photographs of children affected by the disease – their abdomens get really swollen. But when they’re treated with the enzyme that they’re deficient in, they look healthy again. So you realize, I can really make a difference.

I worked at Genzyme for four years, but it was a tough commute from my home in New Hampshire, and I was working a second shift – 1 to 9 p.m. – to avoid the traffic. In 2000, I applied for a job at American Home Products Genetics Institute, which became Wyeth BioPharma and is now Pfizer. I’ve been working in the same development group for 15 years. It’s just great. I was hired to work supporting development and manufacturing for recombinant hemophilia products – again, treatment for a congenital disease. We had a lot of opportunity to actually interact with the hemophilia community, which was really, really awesome. Patients have visited and talked to us about what a difference we’ve made in their lives. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of people in the hemophilia community were infected with hepatitis C and later AIDS when they were given blood transfusions. A lot of people saw loved ones die, and it was just an awful time for the community. So it’s great to know that we can do something so life changing for the next generation.

Right now I’m working with monoclonal antibodies, specifically on biosimilars. We can develop generic versions of drugs that are coming up for loss of exclusivity from other companies. It’s about getting the same medicines to patients at less cost. I’m mostly focusing on arthritis drugs that are given intravenously.

I really like what I do. There’s always something new to learn every day. I’ve learned from great people who have been there longer than I have. It’s been just awesome. I've actually been extremely fortunate in all three of the companies I've worked for. I’ve never had a bad boss. They’ve always been wonderful.

I’m a little surprised and very happy about how my career has worked out. A lot of people I work with have PhDs or master’s degrees. It’s really nice to know that I have a secure job, and that I could do something like this with just a bachelor’s degree. I never went back for a master’s, but I’ve taken classes along the way to brush up on organic chemistry and biochemistry.

Between my work and my family, life is very busy. My husband, Ernie, and I have two boys, Jordan, who’s ten, and Nicholas, who’s eight, and my mom lives with us, too. The boys play soccer, baseball, and basketball so there’s never a dull moment. And they’re young, so they still need a lot of homework attention. Ernie is athletic director for a Boys and Girls Club, which is great because our kids go there after school and he can keep an eye on them and their friends. We’re very involved in our church and we spend a lot of time with our church family, doing different things like Bible studies and Sunday school, so there’s more running around on that side of our lives as well. There’s always a lot going on. Life is very fulfilling.