This interview is part of an occasional series of profiles introducing you to the people behind 23andMe’s compelling research. Matthew McIntyre got hooked on genetics during an anthropology class that introduced him to evolutionary theories about human behavior. He went on to study biological anthropology and how reproductive hormones influence behavior. At 23andMe Matthew works as a survey methodologist. If you are wondering what that survey question about finger length has to do with genetics? Matthew can tell you.
“Life is messy, and what we’re doing in genetics is about life.”
What does the survey team do at 23andMe?
23andMe’s team of survey methodologists are responsible for collecting all the phenotypic information our customers report. (Phenotypes are observable traits, which are influenced by both genetics and the environment.) We measure these phenotypes using your survey answers and then develop new surveys based on research priorities. We need to make sure we have a high volume of high quality information, and that doesn’t happen if people don’t take surveys because the surveys are confusing.
The 23andMe “Your Health Profile” survey is the most important — we want everyone to take that one. In addition, the ancestry-focused “Where are you from?” survey can impact the information we provide back to our customers.
Originally from: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Education:BA Anthropology, University of New Mexico
MA Epidemiology , Harvard
PhD, Biological & Anthropology, Harvard
Post-doc in Public Health at Harvard
Fun Fact: When I was in college, I lived with a Native American tribe in South America and ate beetle larvae.
Tell us about one of your interesting research findings.
I’ve worked extensively in the field of hormones and conducted studies on interpersonal dominance. One of the interesting findings coming from that research was the discovery that the most dominant man in the room probably doesn’t have the highest testosterone level.
When we interviewed men living together in rooming groups, they would generally agree on the dominant person in the group; but that dominance didn’t correlate with testosterone levels. In fact, the better determining factor of dominance was between ring finger and index finger length, which has also been shown to be a measure of testosterone and estrogen in mice.
Tell us about a recent breakthrough in genetics research that you think will have a big impact.
It’s increasingly clear that how genes work is often less important than when they work. This is where things like non-coding DNA and the environment become important. Because almost all of our genes are identical to other animals, the non-coding DNA is where the interesting stuff happens — it’s potentially more interesting than the genes themselves. Epigenetics is looking at the regulation of gene expression, so that’s a field to watch.
What’s one thing the average consumer should know about genetics?
It’s always changing, so stay tuned! Genetics can be complicated and it requires people to learn. We do our best to explain things in a way that’s both simple and scientifically correct, but it helps if you can learn more about genetics as you use 23andMe.
Did you learn anything interesting about yourself from being tested?
I’m very interested in the ancestry side of what we do at 23andMe. My one-eighth Mexican heritage shows up through Native American and Spanish Ancestry Composition, for example. My sister has a slightly higher percentage (of Native American and Spanish ancestry.)