A Tribute to Laura Sheard (1985-2011)

Ning Zheng & Keiko Torii

American Society of Plant Biology News, Vol. 39, No. 1, 27

The life science research community at the University of Washington is deeply saddened by the untimely death of Laura Sheard, whose promising life was cut short at the age of 26 by a tragic car accident in Seattle on November 13, 2011. Laura was a vibrant, exceptionally talented, and highly accomplished young woman scientist in the fifth year of her Ph.D. thesis study in the pharmacology graduate program at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She developed a keen interest in plant biology and made invaluable contributions to the study of plant hormone signaling. Her death is a great loss to her family, friends, and colleagues and to the fields of plant and biological sciences. Laura grew up in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and graduated summa cum laude from Muhlenberg College with a Bachelor of Science degree in neuroscience. As part of the RJ Fellows Honors Program, Laura completed an honor’s thesis on identifying key domains of the GABAA receptor for allopreganolone recognition. From her undergraduate thesis work and summer internship experiences at MIT and Merck, Laura became fascinated with the molecular mechanisms by which living cells and organisms sense and decode diverse environmental cues and cellular signals. Her solid command of chemistry, biology, and neuroscience naturally led her to the wonderland of receptors and ion channels, proteins that enable cells to perceive light, temperature, nutrients, and mechanic forces and to communicate with one another through neurotransmitters and hormones.

In 2007, Laura joined the Pharmacology Graduate Program at the University of Washington. Although her original plan was to continue studying neuroscience, she was soon lured to plant biology, where key components of hormonal signaling pathways started to emerge and define new paradigms of receptor biology. Laura had long been enamored with plants; as a sophomore in college, she performed a field study of medicinal plant use in Las Juntas Abangares, Costa Rica. A walk with her in an herb garden was always a treat to anyone interested in therapeutic and aromatic plants and the molecular principles behind their pharmacological effects. In the Zheng lab at the University of Washington, she found a perfect opportunity to blend her interests in receptor structure and function with basic plant research. In less than two years, Laura designed and performed a series of elegant and multidisciplinary experiments that helped elucidate the coreceptor nature and the structural determinants of the COI1-JAZ ubiquitin ligase-substrate complexes in perceiving the plant hormone jasmonate. Her work further identified an unexpected inositol-pentakisphosphate molecule in the middle of COI1, which plays a critical role in potentiating the coreceptor for hormone binding. Her raw talents in research were manifested throughout her experiments, which were characterized by rigor, precision, and innovation. Her studies soon granted her leading authorship in a research article published in Nature. While working on the jasmonate project, Laura began to read widely on plant biology. With a curious mind and a talent for seeing the big picture, she initiated two additional exciting projects in the lab aimed at revealing the mechanisms of receptor action of two other key plant hormones.

Although Laura could have graduated with her Ph.D. degree in 2011, she insisted on finishing one of the two new projects because she could not stop working on it. Right before the fatal accident, Laura made an unexpected discovery that could be a breakthrough in the field. Excelling in research, Laura also touched many lives around her with her endearing and vivacious spirit. As an extremely intelligent young woman scientist, she was supremely confident, endlessly energetic, cheerful, and outgoing. She had very broad interests and a wide breadth of knowledge, and she never failed to spark dynamic and engaging conversations with scientists at all levels and of diverse backgrounds. She made every effort to interact closely with the local plant biology labs. She was an active participant in the local Arabidopsis group’s (SAMPL: Seattle Model Plant Laboratories)seminar series and other events, and she gave an outstanding talk about her research at a SAMPL seminar earlier this year. Laura was the driving force in initiating and coordinating cross-campus and cross-nation collaborations. Recently, she had been providing her expertise and insight into the biochemistry and structural biology of ligand receptor interaction in the epidermal patterning, a project of current focus in the Torii lab. Laura and her boyfriend, Kristopher Martin, joined the end-of-year SAMPL get-together on November 13 to celebrate the successful year. She seemed filled with excitement for her future and new interactions with local plant scientists.

On her way back to the university to finish her experiments, Laura and Kristopher were fatally rear-ended by a speeding vehicle while stopped at a traffic light. This is an unbearable tragedy. Laura was not only passionate about science, but also about people. She had a kind, caring, and warm heart and was always perceptive about others and awake to the world. After she joined the Zheng lab, she took every rotation student under her wing and reached out to every other lab member and visiting scientist. With natural leadership skills, she put together birthday parties and baby showers for coworkers with her well-planned calendar and organized many fun group activities that helped build and maintain a joyous and healthy lab culture. Outside work, Laura loved the outdoors and enjoyed hiking and fishing in the Washington Cascades. She was also an avid dancer who walked with incredible poise and grace. Laura will be remembered as the epitome of next-generation scientists. Members of the research community who were privileged to work with her will remember her infectious laugh, uplifting spirit, and passionate devotion to science.