Innovation at Keck: Dr. Sandra Watson, Dopamine, and Drosophila Fruit Flies


Juliette Des Rosiers ’26
Copy Editor Intern

Dr. Sandra Watson is a new faculty member at the W.M. Keck Science Department, arriving this past fall as an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience. Her work explores the impact of neuron pathways on psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders and is currently examining the behavioral implications of disruptions in dopamine metabolism.

Watson began her academic career at Spelman College, a historically Black women’s liberal arts college, where she received her Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry. While at school, an organic chemistry course rerouted from her medical school into a passion for research. While pursuing her Ph.D. at Rockefeller University in New York City, Watson shifted her focus again, this time to biological sciences. She worked on a protein complex called the proteasome, observing its role in protein degradation that could be applied to neurodegenerative disorders. During this project, she learned the merits of the Drosophila fruit fly as a model organism.

“You can do so much in fruit flies from genetics to even behavioral studies,” said Watson. “So I fell in love with flies.”

Professor Watson continued on to Columbia University for her postdoctoral work where she expanded her research to include neuropsychiatric disorders and, interestingly, where their mechanisms potentially overlap with neurodegenerative disorders.

“Schizophrenia is a disorder characterized oftentimes by elevated levels of dopamine and so there’s a lot of disorders that can be comorbid with schizophrenia, including drug addiction,” Watson explained. Therefore, she was excited to look into how this dopamine process could be linked to neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, which is associated with decreased levels of dopamine.

“What we were doing with flies, which is pretty funny, is we were feeding the flies amphetamine,” Watson said. “These flies were fed amphetamine as a model, or a readout for mostly dopamine signaling, but also learning about how dopamine signals can teach us more about how schizophrenia works in humans.”

Now, Professor Watson has arrived at Keck to share her love for flies and dopamine with Claremont College students. Her research at Keck is focused on dopamine levels and, more specifically, dopamine metabolism, which Watson explains is often overlooked in research.

“We know that dopamine itself can form these toxic quinones that can damage neurons, but dopamine has other byproducts,” Watson explained. “So do those byproducts also cause toxicity? Or are they broken down to kind of protect the neuron?”

The implications of Watson’s work expand far past dopamine and Drosophila. The fruit flies share 60% conserved genes with humans, including the whole dopamine pathway. Therefore, Watson’s current work focuses on how genes could be linked to dopamine breakdown.

Each gene shown to regulate dopamine breakdown in flies is mirrored by the same gene in humans. Watson hopes that by fully characterizing these genes, her research could shed some light on how genetics impacts dopamine-regulated neuropsychiatric disorders. “We want to better understand that to get a better sense of why certain psychiatric disorders arise and what makes some individuals more susceptible,” she said.

As a faculty member, Watson greatly values mentoring students while emphasizing student independence in her lab. She encourages students to find an aspect of the dopamine pathway that piques their interest, investigate background literature, and then works with them to formulate a hypothesis and procedure.

“Hearing these new fresh ideas is very exciting for me,” she said. “So I like that aspect. A lot. Just getting hands on with the students in the lab and teaching them how to do the techniques and then seeing how they can develop their own independent styles is really rewarding for me.”

An upcoming opportunity to work under the mentorship of Professor Watson is a lab project with the goal of identifying the missing link in the metabolism of dopamine in glial cells. A student would screen for a transporter that helps glial cells take up and then break down dopamine.

“I think that would be a really important finding because if we know what the target is, we can manipulate that target to either increase or decrease its function and have another avenue to regulate dopamine levels in the synapse,” explained Watson. This could lead to more methods to regulate behaviors that have dysregulated dopamine levels, such as schizophrenia, ADHD, and Parkinson’s disorder. This position will be available in the fall and Professor Watson encourages anyone who is interested to contact her.

Watson is passionate about helping students further their careers in science, sharing that it was a primary motivator for her becoming a professor. “I’ve always wanted to pursue a career as a liberal arts faculty member because of how it ties both teaching and research together,” she noted.

In addition to this, she enjoys supporting students in their post-graduation plans, whether that be a graduate program, medical school, research, or another job in science.“I feel like it’s important to instill those ideals in students of how they can use these lab skills in pursuing their next steps,” she said.

Watson emphasized her devotion to mentoring Keck students of color, especially women of color. “Outside of being at a Black women’s college, I’ve never had a mentor who was a woman in science at my research universities,” Watson explained. “I think that one of the shocks for me coming from undergrad was that I went to a very top graduate university but there were very, very few women in STEM and zero Black faculty out of 100-something faculty.”

She stressed the importance of supporting women of color in faculty positions and their research. She expressed a need to analyze why faculty of color are so underrepresented, even more so than science students of color. Where is the disconnect that is preventing them, and especially women of color from pursuing a career in academia and education?

“I think it’s important to promote and give that support to new and young faculty coming in who are women, who are Black women, who are women of color, because I think it starts at those levels where students can see representations of themselves in these faculty and then pursue those types of careers,” Watson said.

Since she now acts as this representation for young Black women in science, she wants to prioritize mentoring students of color at Keck in any area of science, not just neuroscience. “I feel like Black scientists at Claremont are already underrepresented, so giving them that support and mentorship is something that’s really important to me,” she said.

Image Source: Claremont McKenna College

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