I graduated in 2005 from Rice University with a B.A. in biochemistry and a B.S. in biophysics. I got my Ph.D. in cell biology in San Francisco in 2011 at UCSF. Now, I am working as a post-doctoral research fellow in a lab in Osaka, Japan.
I have received numerous research awards including a graduate student fellowship from the Department of Defense and an NSF East Asia and Pacific Studies fellowship. My post-doctoral research has been funded by the Human Frontier’s Science Program and the RIKEN foreign postdoctoral research program.
My current research is very focused on DNA. Specifically, I look at how changes in DNA correspond to changes in RNA, which results in the production of proteins over a 24-h period. Because defects in circadian rhythms are linked to not only lifestyle productivity issues, such as jet-lag and shift work, but also fundamental diseases such as cancer and depression, my work has broad-ranging applications to human health. Furthermore, my research has direct applications to the development of next-generation RNA drugs, which are now being tested for targeting personalized therapies.
A: I grew up in Los Angeles and went to the North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet because I was fascinated by science and biology. In college at Rice University in Houston, my roommate’s sister worked in a plant genetics lab, so I got a job washing dishes and making media in that lab and fell in love with basic research science. My role was to discover how mutations in different genes resulted in defective enzymes responsible for storing the hormone that helps plants grow and develop root systems.
In graduate school in San Francisco, I worked to understand how white blood cells crawl and engulf invading bacteria. These primary immune cells, called neutrophils, deform their shape and rapidly migrate towards sites of infection. I developed an imaging system to understand how protein molecules move to the leading edge of a migrating cell, integrate into the structural network of the cell that control movement, and are ultimately recycled as the cell migrates along a surface.
Now I am working as a postdoctoral researcher in a lab in Osaka, Japan. My work focuses on the machinery that converts an RNA molecule into a protein molecule, and how different structural elements on the RNA affect this translation process over the course of the day.
A: My primary training at Rice University was in genetics. I have a solid foundation to understand how genes influence an organism. Now that I have started studying circadian rhythms, I have an appreciation of how genes can alter and organisms behavior. For example, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to scientists who discovered that mutations in genes could fundamentally alter an organism’s behavior, and specifically a behavior that occurred with a 24-h or circadian rhythm.
I have had past colleagues who have gone on to work for genetic testing companies, and I’ve also analyzed my families test results when they’ve used genetic testing services “out of curiosity” like 23andMe and AncestryDNA.
A: If you’ve ever opened a book in a foreign language, you can appreciate how daunting it is to interpret what’s written. A DNA test is like having a foreign language dictionary that gives you clues to the meaning of different words. For example, a DNA test will reveal if you have a common or rare variant of a certain gene, or if those variants are associated with different traits or behaviors. But just like a foreign-language dictionary, a DNA test can’t reveal how that DNA is expressed in the context of an individual or might have multiple meanings or implications.
A: Knowledge can be empowering. Knowing that you may be predisposed to obesity may spur increased exercise or variants that are associated with poorer sleep may lead an individual to understand how they can improve their sleep. A familial history of Alzheimer’s disease can provide an impetus for financial planning and care.
However, most DNA variants are quite limited in what they can reveal about an individual. In the “nature” versus “nurture” debate, there is significant merit to “nurture”. In twin studies, which controls genetic differences, changing the environment can have marked effects. For example, when one twin exercises but the other doesn’t, there are large-scale differences in bodies and brains. The sedentary twin tends to age faster, die younger, and have a greater risks of poor health.
A: DNA tests are generally incredibly accurate in that if you have a genetic variant in your DNA, it’s unlikely that the DNA was wrong in predicting that you indeed have that genetic variant. Of course, there are caveats, such as tissue-specific expression, – maybe you have a deleterious or beneficial mutation, but it’s not expression because of some other compensating deleterious or beneficial mutation. The point is that it is incredibly hard to say whether one or more genetic variants are causative of a particular disease, behavior, or health risk. The best science can do is create associations, but as more and more individuals DNA are sequenced the stronger associations can be made between particular variants and health outcomes. However, an individual’s behavior, quality-of-care, and standard-of-living ultimately have the greatest influence on a person’s health.
A: I have limited personal experience with DNA tests. I have never personally used a DNA test, but I reviewed the results of my dad’s test. As a scientist, I pored through some of the genes that I’m interested in in terms of sleep and circadian rhythms, but I didn’t find anything particularly noteworthy. It’s not a surprise because my dad sleeps just fine. As a consumer, my grandfather and my brother both died of heart failure and, in the case of my brother, there was clearly a genetic or developmental defect from birth that caused his condition. In the future, as more and more people with rare variants are tested for these conditions, we may understand which sets of genes contribute to these health risks. And once we understand how health problems occur, we can then begin to devise solutions on how to fix them.
A: The next big hurdle for DNA testing is phenotyping – that is, what are the traits or behaviors or health risks associated with particular DNA variants. It’s relatively easy to examine and classify DNA sequence to determine things like ethnicity, but it’s quite difficult to understand and catalog individual behaviors and health risks. DNA testing may help us understand how to modify diets and behaviors to improve health. However, it won’t help us improve lifestyle diseases, such as obesity and cardiovascular problems, which result, in part, because of poor choices and lack of access to quality foods, sufficient exercise, and adequate sleep.
I am excited about DNA testing of our microbiome because that is something we can do to “change our DNA”. Most people don’t realize, but we have more microorganism cells in our body that actual human cells, and these bacteria communities can have marked impact on our health. Affordable and rapid DNA testing will allow us to understand how this community changes in response to different lifestyle interventions.
In addition, improved DNA testing sensitivity may enable early detect of certain types of cancers. Tumors are filled with cancer cells that have their own DNA. Through metastasis or loss of cancer cells into the blood stream, we can harvest these circulating tumor cells and analyze their genetic composition. This may enable more personalized chemotherapy to deliver specific medicine to patients who are most likely to respond to the therapy. This type of cancer genotyping is already used to subdivide breast cancer patients for different targeted therapies and is beginning to be used for all sorts of different cancers.
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