This interview is part of an occasional series of profiles introducing you to the people behind 23andMe’s content curation team. This team of 23andMe scientists has the unique job of researching, evaluating, and developing the health-related information that is reported to customers. Their rigorous process of combing through scientific literature, vetting genetic information and ensuring that published scientific findings meet our standards for inclusion, directly impacts what you see when you log into your 23andMe account. As director of science content and curation, Shirley manages that team of scientists.
“DNA is a history of all the life on the planet that led us to this point.”
What were you researching before you came to 23andMe?
I was researching computational methods for predicting protein function. The human genome has instructions for making about 20,000 proteins but we only know what a fraction of those proteins actually do. Running experiments with live proteins to figure that out is complicated, expensive, and time intensive. Some researchers have been trying to predict what proteins do based on other information that we already have, like the sequence of the protein or its 3D structure. My research focused on distilling structural elements of proteins into data points and trying to learn patterns of what certain types of functions “look” like. Given enough examples of proteins that can bind calcium, can we recognize calcium-binding sites in other proteins? The better we can make computational tools like this, the faster we can determine what proteins do and the better we can focus downstream research in areas like drug development.
From: New Jersey
BA, Computational Biology, Brown University
PhD, Biomedical Informatics, Stanford
Fun Fact: Shirley played competitive Ultimate Frisbee, which included Junior Worlds, College, and Club championship titles.
Why are you excited about genetics?
Genetics is universal to all living things. At the same time, it’s responsible for the remarkable amount of diversity on this planet. It’s fascinating to think about how our DNA is a history of the life that came before us. Genetics is also a really powerful tool for understanding our present world and for solving important problems in health and food production. I was attracted to 23andMe because I’m interested in democratizing science and making it accessible to consumers. I like to think about what kinds of research we can translate for our customers – research we’re doing in-house and external research that’s making connections between DNA and health. We want to look at those connections and share what’s interesting and valuable.
Tell us about a recent breakthrough in technology that you think will have a big impact on the industry.
I’m interested in what’s happening with activity tracking devices and the increasingly common collection of data by consumers. People are currently gathering data on a scale that’s much broader than ever before, and that expands the potential for what researchers will be able to learn. It won’t be easy to translate this data into knowledge that can improve health, but greater access to data and improved methods for analysis will allow more people to participate and experiment. Historically, medical science has also focused on populations, rather than individuals, but with new ways of gathering and thinking about data we may be able to “study” individuals over time and learn enough about the factors that affect them to benefit them in their lifetime.
Tell us about one of your interesting findings at 23andMe.
23andMe conducted the largest genome-wide association study (GWAS) of cilantro taste preference where we compared genetic data from individuals with European ancestry who said they liked fresh cilantro to those who detect a soapy taste. We found a genetic variant near the gene OR6A2 associated with thinking cilantro tasted like soap. It’s interesting to look at something that’s so polarizing and find that there’s a genetic connection related to olfactory receptors. This research in particular, is a good example of a question that other researchers aren’t studying – a list that includes things like how flexible you are, how you smell and other things that could have an impact on your health and well being. At 23andMe, we can look at questions like this and do research that no one else can do because our large database and platform for research lets us quickly see if there’s an association without having to write a new protocol, recruit participants, analyze research and then do it all again to ask a marginally different question. We can change the course of our research in real-time and look at lots of associations that help us explain why humans are the way we are.
Did you learn anything interesting from your 23andMe results? Did you make any changes as a result of taking the test?
I learned that I have one copy of the alcohol flush gene, which I was able to trace to my father. It was fun to see how inherited traits play out in real life.
What’s one thing the average consumer should know about genetics?
It’s useful for people to understand the concept of inheritance. We get half of our DNA from our mom and half from our dad. Those halves are two copies of the same thing, so we get a full set of chromosomes from each parent, and the slight differences in how those halves are passed down is what leads to the variation between people. While your siblings also inherit half of their DNA from each parent, they don’t inherit the exact same halves that you did (unless you’re identical twins), so brothers and sisters share about 50 percent of their DNA.