Amy Goldberg is a CEHG predoctoral fellow in the lab of Noah Rosenberg. Amy completed her B.S. in Biological Anthropology and Mathematics at the University of Michigan, where she was an undergraduate researcher in the lab. Her interests are in human evolutionary genetics, and she is currently working on mathematical modeling and statistical problems in anthropological genetics.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, personally and professionally?
I grew up in Michigan, but was actually born in South Africa. I’m currently finishing my PhD in Noah Rosenberg’s lab. My background is in both anthropology and mathematics, and this combination continues to shape my research interests and how I address them. I develop quantitative methods to interpret genetic and archeological data to reconstruct past human demography, adaptation, and interactions with the environment. This work mixes population genetics with math and statistics, as well as biological anthropology, archeology, and paleontology.
What got you interested in genetics and science? Did you want to be a scientist as a child?
My parents moved from South Africa to Michigan when I was young, and this degree is exactly what they had in mind. I’ve always liked science, but, as a kid, I thought that biology was mainly memorization. I’ll be graduating from the Biology department this year. This definitely shaped my view of education and how we talk to kids. Role models can be particularly helpful—we see a lot of occupations on TV or in movies, but scientist, especially professor, is vague. I had the opportunity to see my dad go to grad school; I went to his PhD defense when I was 12.
Can you tell us about your current research and what you want to achieve with it?
Much of my work focuses on human evolutionary history during the past 20,000 years, which is recent on evolutionary timescales. This time period is associated with massive social and environmental upheavals, from the end of the Last Glacial Maximum to worldwide megafaunal extinctions and the rise of agriculture. In fact, recent genomic studies have shown that this time period has been particularly important for shaping disease risk in humans because the history of recent expansions has led to a disproportionate number of rare genetic variants in the population. I build mathematical models to understand how evolutionary and social forces impact a population, and develop statistical methods to interpret large quantities of genetic and archeological data.
Most people I meet are innately interested in learning about human history, but this work has further consequences too, from predicting disease risk in diverse populations to forecasting the impact of climate change on animal populations.
What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 or 10 years?
I am finishing my PhD this year. I’m excited to be starting my own lab at Duke, after deferring for a short postdoc at Berkeley. I plan to continue along major lines of research developed during my time at Stanford, and hope to keep in touch with many from the CEHG community. I’ll be tackling problems in evolutionary and population genetics, human-environment interaction, and recent population history.
Were there people (or one person) in particular to whom you would attribute your professional success?
I’ve had a series of amazing mentors. Two in particular stand out—my undergraduate advisor Milford Wolpoff and my PhD advisor Noah Rosenberg.
I cannot discuss my scientific endeavors without thinking of my first scientific mentor, Milford Wolpoff. Before meeting Milford, I was hesitant to speak up for fear of being wrong; Milford taught me to be loud, to question what I read, and to know the history of scientific fields. It is also in Milford’s lab that someone casually mentioned an interesting geneticist on the other side of campus—Noah Rosenberg.
It is absolute luck that I met Noah mere weeks before he moved from the University of Michigan to Stanford. Since then, I have benefited in untold ways from Noah’s intentional efforts to include people from different backgrounds and instill thoughtful scientific habits. His encouragement—the simple belief that I could teach myself the skills I needed to know—underlies my whole PhD. The precision and skill with which Noah thinks is something I will continue to strive towards for the length of my career.
CEHG’s core values include “interdisciplinary research” and “collaboration.” Can you speak to the ways your work has embodied these values or to their importance to your future work or past experience?
My work is really interdisciplinary and I’ve greatly benefited from CEHG bringing together scientists from across the university. I’ve learned from the professors, but also from the opportunity to interact with all the students and postdocs and the great speakers that visit for Evolgenome. More directly, CEHG sponsored my research through their grant mechanism for a project early in my PhD, which was the first collaborative project I participated in.
Tell us what you do when you aren’t working on research and why. Do you have hobbies? Special talents? Other passions besides science?
Since my work is computational, I try to get outside for fun. Living in the Bay Area, that is easy. I go for a hike most weekends and have recently taken up climbing. I like to travel a lot too.
What advice would you offer to other grad students or postdocs who are considering pursuing a similar educational and career path as you?
Figure out how to like to work early on—this will help you all other decisions like choosing mentors or to your field/subfield. Having a mix of people around with different personalities and research goals really helped me find my own way. I tried to frequently solicit their advice, but you don’t always have to take it. Outside the box opportunities are often overlooked but may be very worthwhile to starting a whole new line of research or to meeting collaborators.