Sarah O’Connor performed her graduate work on protein glycosylation with Professor Barbara Imperiali at both Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and received her PhD from MIT in 2001. She was an Irving Sigal post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Professor Chris Walsh at Harvard Medical School from 2001-2003, where she studied the biosynthesis of microbial-derived natural products. After her post-doctoral work, she became assistant and then associate professor of Chemistry at MIT. In 2011 she moved her research group to the John Innes Centre where she is a Project Leader in the Department of Biological Chemistry. She is also on the faculty of the School of Chemistry at the University of East Anglia.
Her work focuses understanding how natural product pathways work, with a particular emphasis on plant-derived alkaloids. The organization of natural product pathways in plants pose many exciting research challenges that have only begun to be addressed. Her group has made inroads into the mechanistic study of some of the biochemical transformations observed in plant alkaloid biosynthesis, and, in parallel with these efforts, her group has also engineered the substrate specificity of alkaloid biosynthetic enzymes and implemented these enzymes in metabolic engineering efforts. This has led to the successful use of plant tissue for the production of “new-to-nature” compounds. Finally, her group’s research has also begun to address the challenging problem of elucidating the uncharacterized genes of plant metabolic pathways. This work has been facilitated by the efforts of a larger consortium, of which she is one of the Program Directors, that has obtained sequence data for a variety of medicinal plants. Her work has been recognized by several awards, including an Alfred P. Sloan research fellowship, the American Chemical Society Pfizer Award and the Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award.
When she is not working, Sarah O’Connor enjoys reading, hiking and running.