Q: In a couple sentences, tell me about what you do in your work.
A: My lab develops computationally intensive statistical methods for analyzing genomics data and other big data from emerging technologies. As such we’re almost completely on the computer rather than in the wet lab. One of the things that we’re known for is making open source software that other people use, and also for providing rigor to the field of genomics.
Q: What is the field of genomics all about?
A: Fundamentally it is about observing the sequences of DNA. We then write computer programs to decode the information in the sequences.
Q: What is the end goal in your work?
A:There isn’t a single end goal from a biological perspective because we are developing computational methods that we apply to a lot of different problems. So the end goal is the statistical methodology and the computer programs. That said, there are problems that we work on more than others. One of the things that the lab works on is using these models and genomic sequencing to study the microbes that live in and on the human body, called the human microbiome. Others in the lab are trying to understand how DNA differs over much shorter time scales, like developmental processes and how those go wrong in disease, as well as why in the different cells in the body different parts of the DNA get translated into proteins.
Q: What’s your favorite part about being a scientist?
A: The people in the lab, being a mentor and helping people be as successful as they can. I try to figure out with each person what that means and how to empower them. There are 20 people in my group right now, and I’m the director for this floor of the building, with about 80 people from other labs.
Q: What have you created or discovered that you are most proud of?
A: One of the things I’m most proud of and most known for is that I did one of the first comparisons of the human genome (our DNA) to that of chimpanzees and some other mammals that had genome sequences at the time. I discovered the fastest evolving parts of the human genome (the sequences that make us the most different from other animals). These help us to understand the genetic basis for what makes us human.
Q: So, what is it that makes us different?
A: So it was a surprise to me and to everyone else that the sequences that were most different in humans aren’t our genes, but are sequences that control when genes are turned on and off. So, you can think about it as humans and chimps are made up of the same building blocks and materials, but they are put together in different ways. Hence, if you were making a chimp “building” and human “building”, both are made out of stones, mortar and wood, but one of them could be a house and one could be a church.
Q: Why the chimpanzee?
A: They are our closest living relative; not the closest one that ever lived, but the more closely related ones are all extinct, so the chimp is the closest relative on the tree of life where we can get DNA. Other scientists have subsequently figured out how to get DNA out of fossils and looked at the genomes of ancient humans, and we’ve been studying this data as well. But in terms of a living organism where you can actually say “Oh, they are different from us because they can’t eat this food, or their infants are born earlier, or they don’t have a spoken language,” chimps are a better comparison than a fossil.
Q: What were the organisms that are extinct that we were closer to?
A: Probably one of the most famous are neanderthals. We had an ancestor less than a million years ago, and humans and chimps had a common ancestor about 6 million years ago. When along that evolutionary branch you think it’s a human or not depends on your point of a view...it’s sort of semantics.
Q: At the end of the day, why does your work matter?
A: One of the reasons I’ve been working on the microbiome is that I believe it’s an important part of our health and our normal biology, because many of the cells in our body aren’t human cells and the majority of the DNA in our body isn’t human DNA, it’s from bacteria and other microorganisms. So if you want to understand what makes a normal human body and how it can get sick, you’re missing the boat if you’re just studying human DNA. So, scientific curiosity but also as a patient with two autoimmune diseases, I am very motivated to understand what microbial cells are there and what they are doing.
Q: Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
A: Good question. I used to have some really good answers for this one. I now have twin 6-year-olds, so between working and my kids, I don’t have a ton of free time. I used to have some really interesting hobbies, like being a dj and being in bands, but I don’t do any music right now. I listen to a lot of music but I don’t perform anymore. I like all types (of music). I was at the symphony last week; When I dj’ed, I played psychedelic trance. Now my hobbies are mostly things I can do with the kids. We were just in Yosemite camping last week...the waterfalls were really flowing which was amazing, I like to get outdoors and out of the city. My family grows grapes and makes wine, so we go up to the vineyard pretty frequently in the Napa Valley, and the kids can get outside and I can drink wine.
Q: What situation do you think you’d feel the most out-of-place in?
A:There are not a lot of women in science in general, especially in the more quantitative sciences. I don’t feel out of place, but I often feel aware that I am the only woman in the room.
Q: In 100 years, what do you want to be remembered for?
A:Tying back to mentoring and trainees, I hope that the people I train go on to be successful scientists and that they train other people. So it would be that legacy of a field or group of scientists that I helped to enable.
Journalism & Photography Credit: Alexa Rocourt