Long ago, I got my Bachelor of Arts in speech pathology and audiology and my first graduate degree in applied linguistics, both from Northern Arizona University. Then I became a chaplain. I provided emotional and psychosocial palliative care for patients and families at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. I was 24 and struck by the inevitability of death and moved by the wails of the grieving and stories of the bedridden. I found myself wanting to be more than a listening ear, to prevent people from ever being in the hospital. I knew being a physician wasn't the answer because physicians treat existing illnesses. But I wanted to know what causes cancer, congenital disorders, psychiatric suffering, and diabetes, and to prevent them all.
Four years later, I learned there was an entire scientific discipline dedicated to fulfilling that wish: public health, a humanistic "miracle" that saves lives millions at a time. I got a position in a genetics laboratory that did population screening of newborns. Every baby born in Washington State got a “heel prick,” and their blood was screened for innate metabolic disorders. The aim was to identify and put sick babies on treatment before anyone noticed they were sick. Amazingly, I had stumbled into public health, an invisible way to intervene, to prevent babies, at least, from being hospitalized. I found an empirical way to be a chaplain that didn’t require being a chaplain – a way to invisibly reduce suffering.
Getting a taste of medical genetics and epidemiology, the study of diseases and their prevention in human populations, wasn't enough. I left Seattle for a master’s in public health (MPH) at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. And the fascination grew. Afterwards, I did a yearlong fellowship in the Clinical Genetics Branch of the National Cancer Institute, where I began studying rare cancers (testicular germ-cell tumors) with Dr. Mark Greene and cancer-predisposition syndromes (e.g., ribosomopathies) with Dr. Blanche Alter. Then I got my PhD in public-health genetics at the University of Washington.
My dissertation had two parts: one empirical and one in the humanities. I did the empirical half at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the epigenetics of shift work under Dr. Parveen Bhatti, an environmental epidemiologist. I did the humanities half on the ethical landscape of working at night with Dr. Wylie Burke, former head of American Society of Human Genetics. The dissertation products were published in three different scholarly venues: an epigenetics journal, an ethics journal, and Nature.
Several months before graduating, I moved to England to learn Mendelian randomization, a cutting-edge, causal-inference technique that uses genetics to study the environment, everything that isn’t genetic. Mendelian randomization mimics a randomized-controlled trial and avoids most sources of environmental confounding in observational studies. I aim to discover regulatory causes of diseases in human populations and to understand what makes us who we are and why we age.
At Harvard in Bernardo Lemos’ lab, I have several projects underway involving ribosomal biology and longevity: autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a ribosomopathy (integrating genetic data from 13 brain regions with an ASD genetic study); the influence of nucleolar biology genes on a metabolite that shortens healthspan (apolipoprotein-B); alternative splicing of nucleolar biology genes in lung on forced expiratory lung volume; and tissue-specific ribosomal expression clocks of aging.
In addition, I have ongoing collaborations with colleagues at other universities. We recently published on the shared genetic architectures of COVID-19 and antisocial behavior (e.g., norm violation, aggression, and crime). Those with antisocial proclivities appeared likelier to be exposed to COVID-19, especially earlier in the pandemic before access to vaccines and the more transmissible Omicron variant.
BA, 2000, Speech pathology & audiology
Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ
MA-TESL, 2002, Applied linguistics
Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ
MPH, 2012, Genetic epidemiology
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
Predoc, 2013, Clinical genetics
National Cancer Institute, Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, Rockville, MD
PhD, 2016, Public-health genetics (epigenetics & bioethics)
University of Washington & Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, WA
Postdoc, 2018, Mendelian randomization
University of Bristol, Integrative Epidemiology Unit, Bristol, England
Postdoc, 2020, Transcriptomics of breast cancer
City of Hope Cancer Center, Los Angeles, CA
Postdoc, Current, Ribosomal expression clocks of aging
Harvard University, Boston, MA