I moved out to Los Angeles in 2011 to begin graduate work at UCLA and have been loving my experience here. Before my move, I earned a BA in astrophysics from Columbia University in New York City, taught middle school math at a charter school near Park City Utah and was first introduced to bioinformatics research at the University of Michigan.
My research interests focus on leveraging ancestry and population information to perform more powerful and accurate disease studies. In the Pasaniuc lab we have been keenly focused on disease studies in admixed individuals such as African Americans or Latinos. These individuals have genomes that are composed of long ancestry tracts from multiple populations. Through statistical methods that we have developed, we can determine the ancestry of an individual at each position in the genome. Since many diseases have different prevalence in different populations, we can use these differences to better analysis and predict disease causing variants as well as to enhance diagnostic tools for individual medicine. We have extended the use of population differences to look at rare mendelian traits, many of which have causes that have long eluded researchers. My current work grew out of investigating compound heterozygous causal architectures in monogenic diseases. Current disease models for complex disease are underpowered to find these. We are developing methods to identify compound heterozygotes without having to lose statistical power from the multiple testing burden.
Outside of my academic life, I make full use of the amazing weather and natural resources in and around Los Angeles. While most notably among my friends I live on beautiful two masted sailboat that I restored, I also ride my bike to UCLA everyday, have hiked many of the trails in Santa Monica and Malibu and have spent a good number of days in the wilderness backpacking to the many secluded hot springs in the area. Most recently I got back form a one week trip in the Golden Trout National Forest where I assisted a friend in a study where she was investigating bird populations in burn areas.
Through this blog I wish to share both the interesting aspects of my formal academic work as well as the may interesting thoughts, questions and discoveries about how genomes shapes our lives, communities and planet.
I feel like I was probably the only freshman who found my campus career center useful. I couldn’t decide between majoring in pure math or biology, so I took one of those arguably lame personality tests the career center offers. The counselor I met with to go over the results strongly considered I check out the major Computational and Systems Biology, and I loved it – I didn’t HAVE to choose! It turns out that computational methods are vital to understand how life works the way it does. After earning my B.S. and getting some experience in a bioinformatics lab, I began the Ph.D. program in Bioinformatics at UCLA.
I am currently working under Dr. Grace Xiao towards understanding how RNA processing and regulation occurs, specifically RNA degradation. I work to address this question by analyzing different types of sequencing data including Degradome-Seq, CLIP-Seq, and RNA-Seq. Before bioinformatics, it was accepted that RNA was just a messenger between DNA and protein. Now, because of sequencing, we know that it has many roles and variations that help to explain how such a small number of genes can lead to a wide variety of phenotypes. The RNA field is just one example of how bioinformatics has revolutionized the way we think about biology.
I am excited to write for this blog. Reading scientific journals about cutting edge research is important, but I think it is also important (and fun) to start conversations about current topics openly, casually, and in English so that scientists and non-scientists alike can contribute.
Aliz R. Rao
I first got interested in genetics in middle school, when I got my first taste of Punnett squares and thought they are fun in the way logic puzzles are. I later re-discovered genetics in college, at UCLA, where I finally majored in Computational and Systems Biology with a specialization in Bioinformatics. I chose the field because it was the perfect way to merge my love for biology, and my other passion: programming. Currently, I am a Bioinformatics Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Stan Nelson’s lab. Our lab is involved in sequencing the exomes of individuals with rare genetic diseases or complex disorders, in hopes that we can identify the genetic mutations responsible for causing disease. In my research, I collaborate with clinicians and try to identify variants that may contribute to complex diseases such as bipolar disorder and autism. In addition, I look for patterns in the variation found in normal, healthy individuals. Knowing what normal variation looks like will help us determine which variants to filter out when looking for disease-causing variants.
Outside the lab, I spend much of my time doing DIY projects around the house or going outdoors, jogging, hiking, or backacking. I dabble in various genres of dance, and love to travel all over the world.
I hope that by contributing to Talking Genomes, I can be of help to those trying to enter the field of bioinformatics. It’s such a new and rapidly growing field, that I meet many who have heard of it want to learn more, but have no idea where to start. Here, I hope I can offer some insight to those readers, as well as share interesting experiences from the life of a Bioinformatics Ph.D. student.