A Conversation with 23andMe’s Director of Research

This interview is part of an occasional series of profiles introducing you to the people behind 23andMe’s compelling research. Joyce Tung is the Director of Research at 23andMe. She has contributed to several of our research publications and currently leads the research team, spending a lot of time thinking about improving the experience of participating in research. Prior to her work at 23andMe, Joyce studied tJoyce-Tung Photohe genetics of fertility. She continues to be interested in that topic and we’re currently collecting survey data around fertility from 23andMe customers.

“Genetics is a cool way of looking at the world.”

Tell us about a recent breakthrough in genetics research that you think will have a big impact.
Traditionally, genetic testing (with the exception of prenatal testing) has been used to diagnose an existing problem. Recently, however we’ve been able to use genetics more generally in a way that predicts for which conditions people might have a higher risk. This is important because there are a million things you could be doing to improve your health — and genetic risk factors could help us prioritize.

In addition, we’re starting to see genetics move into the clinic and inform drug development and other functional studies. We used to only factor human data in during the clinical trial phase, which is problematic as animals aren’t always a good proxy for humans. Now, we can use all this non-invasive genetic data to take advantage of real-world, real-time data to design better experiments and drugs.

Joyce Tung, PhD Director of Research
Originally from: Saratoga, CA
Education: BS: Biological Sciences from Stanford University
PhD: Genetics from University of California, San Francisco
Post-doc: Stanford University
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at University of California, San Francisco
Fun Fact: The only flavor of Doritos I will eat is Nacho Cheese.

Tell us about one of your interesting findings.
On the lighter side, in 2013, 23andMe published a first of its kind study looking at the genetics behind stretch marks, identifying new genetic associations that can provide deeper insights into the root causes of the condition. This kind of research could help in developing better treatments and point the direction for future study. For example, one area our researchers would like to look at further is the potential effects of genes associated with obesity and the development of stretch marks.

We’re often finding things in the database we didn’t expect!

What’s one thing the average person should know about genetics?
A lot of people either don’t know anything about genetics, or they’ve only heard about extremely rare conditions like Huntington’s disease. That makes genetics seem scary, but that’s slowly starting to change.

People should know there’s nothing all that special about the information your genes provide. If you have high cholesterol you’re at increased risk for heart disease. You might also have an increased risk for heart disease because of a genetic predisposition. Those two things sound different, but they both are risk indications that can be used to help you and your doctor manage your health. In fact, genetics is no different from any other innate risk.