Fellows Feature: Ziyue Gao


Ziyue Gao is a CEHG postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Jonathan Pritchard. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Sciences and a second degree in Economics from Tsinghua University in China. She then did her Ph.D study in genetics at the University of Chicago, working with Dr. Molly Przeworski. Her research focuses on understanding the roles of mutation and natural selection in shaping the genetic variation pattern in human populations, particularly their impact on the prevalence and distribution of disease-associated mutations.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, personally and professionally?

I started my postdoc in Jonathan Pritchard’s lab in September 2015, after finishing a PhD in genetics at the University of Chicago. I was a graduate student in Molly Przeworski’s lab, and we studied the impact of balancing selection on maintaining genetic diversity in primates and the burden of recessive lethal mutations in human.

A bit of background about myself: I was born and raised in Beijing, China. My childhood and teenage years were pretty boring: the kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, and high school I went to were all within a 5km radius circle around home, and I attended a university where my grandfather and my mother worked. I was so glad that this routine finally ended with my journey to Chicago for graduate study.

What have you perceived to be the differences between the US and your home country? Have you enjoyed your time at Stanford?

The US values diversity and work-life balance much more than my home country does. I have benefited a lot from these differences in my career and personal developments. I feel extremely lucky to be able to work and study at Stanford.

Can you tell us about your current research and what you hope to achieve with it?

Together with Jonathan [Pritchard] and Emily Glassberg, a grad student in our lab, I’m currently studying the selection pressures on gene expression levels. Expression changes are long hypothesized to drive a great amount of phenotypic differences between species and among individuals, but whether or not and to what extent gene expression is under evolutionary constraints is largely unknown.

We try to tackle this question by utilizing results from recent genome-wide analyses of gene expression. By comparing the joint distribution of allele frequency and effect size of identified expression-altering variants across different groups of genes, we can infer whether the expression levels of these groups are under different levels of evolutionary constraints. We also develop a likelihood-based method to estimate the overall proportion and average effect size of all regulatory sites for any given group of genes. Together, these analyses will bring new insights into the genetic architecture and evolutionary constraints on gene expression in humans.

What first got you interested in genetics and science?

In college, I was fascinated by the rigor of genetic analysis and the rapid development of molecular techniques, and I thought the quantitative nature of genetics would provide me a niche to combine my strength in mathematics and passion for life science.

Prior to joining the University of Chicago, I had never heard of the field “population genetics,” but after taking only two lessons taught by Dr. Dick Hudson, I decided to do a rotation in a population genetics lab. After a rotation in Molly’s lab, I was determined to devote my PhD (and hopefully my career) to research in population genetics.

Were there specific people to whom you would attribute your professional success?

There were, of course, many people that had great impacts on my career decisions, but I would like to especially thank two of them, Dick and Molly, for introducing me to the wonderful world of population genetics.

What is it like working with your current lab advisor and his/her lab? Do you have lab mates you work closely with on projects?

Working with Jonathan is a real pleasure. He is very flexible in terms of his working style— he can be as attentive and as hands-off as you need. This flexibility leads to higher work efficiency and more innovative ideas.

I also really enjoy being surrounded by my lab mates, who have the perfect composition of smartness, nerdiness, and fun. I learned a lot from them, especially from Emily, with whom I am currently working closely on studying selection on gene expression.

What are your professional plans for the next 5-10 years? 

My ambition is to get a position at a university, either in the US or in my home country. I also have passions for forensic science and science fiction, so don’t be surprised if you find me becoming a detective or a sci-fi writer 10 years later.

Do you have advice you would like to offer undergrads, grad students, and postdocs (thinking of) working in your field? 

For grad students, cherish your time in grad school: it is a great time (if not the best time) to learn some theory, build up skill sets, try bold ideas, and not worry much about progress.

Research is not a “linear” process. It is especially slow and challenging at the beginning.

Sometimes we are stuck on a project for months or even years with no good/trustable results, but it doesn’t mean we achieve nothing — we learn a lot from the quests, setbacks and even failures. Grad school is such a rare opportunity when one can focus on learning and the cost of failure is very low.

Can you speak a bit to the role you see CEHG playing on Stanford campus?

The Evolgenome seminar series is one of the great things that CEHG offers. It enables me to learn new knowledge and perspectives from others’ research on a regular basis. The annual CEHG symposium provides further opportunities to interact with speakers and audience members from on and off campus. I can see that these activities will facilitate the exchange of ideas and foster a lot of future collaborations.

Tell us what you do when you aren’t working on research. Do you have hobbies or special talents? Other passions besides science?

I always have huge passions for movies and stage plays, but recently I’ve been spending a lot more time outdoors, training for a half-marathon. Other than the wonderful academic environment and opportunities at Stanford, I feel this new hobby is the best gift that the Bay Area gives to me.



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