Fellows Feature: Natalie Telis

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Natalie Telis is a CEHG graduate fellow in the lab of Jonathan Pritchard. She is a graduate of the University of California, Davis with bachelors’ degrees in Mathematics and Cell Biology. Her research focuses on the evolutionary connection between human variation and modern disease, with specific work on recent adaptation and the biological consequences of Neanderthal-acquired variants. 

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

I was born in Brooklyn a few months after my mother came here from Russia, and lived there until starting primary school. I’ve been a Californian ever since! I lived in the Bay Area for about 10 years, then completed my undergraduate degrees in Math and Cell Biology at the University of California, Davis and promptly came back here to the Bay for my graduate work. After I defend, I’ll be starting a position as a Statistical Geneticist at AncestryDNA, where I’ll be continuing to dive into human genetics in a very different environment (with a lot more snacks). When not in the lab I like bicycling, drawing and teaching my cats tricks.

Why did you become a scientist? What got you interested in genetics and science?

Growing up in the area, I was a total math nerd, but I was also fascinated with marine biology. This fascination was mostly driven by weekends my mother and I spent hiking in Santa Cruz; the marine fossils we found totally captivated me.

My marine biology interest persuaded my mom to let me keep two fish tanks, and this is what turned me into an evolutionary biologist. We had decorated them a little differently, and accidentally transplanted some brown snails into both tanks alongside some plants. Much to our chagrin, they defied our fish’s constant efforts to eat them all. But over the months, the snail colors changed! Within the year we had one population of light brown snails and one of super dark black snails, just like the gravel at the bottom of my 2 tanks. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

I clamored for a genetics textbook, and my mom found this free online educational genetics game where you could breed and genome-edit dragons to probe the heritability of cool dragon traits. I was basically hooked from there. I struggled to resolve my interests in math and genetics until college; then I realized there was no need for me to choose between math and genetics when I could simply do both and be a computational geneticist.

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

In my day to day research, I work on connecting the history of genetic variants with their modern effects. We have a lot of reasons, both theoretic and empirical, to believe the history of a variant – like what population it comes from, how long it’s been around and in what environment – has the potential to change how common it is. And obviously with variants that might affect disease, we want to be able to connect this history to explaining some of that modern disease risk.

To that end,I’ve worked on a few projects here. One major one has been detecting signals of evolution’s influence on the architecture of complex traits. As opposed to simple single-gene, single-effect, single-disease traits, these are more like amalgamations of many tiny effects. Traits like this include everything from height and other body measurements to metabolic function or immune response. And picking apart this evolutionary history can suggest how our historic environment is playing a role in shaping the modern prevalence of disease-altering variants.

Another example of work I’ve done has focused on variants from somewhere really different – those that we inherited from Neanderthals when we met them 50,000 years ago. By connecting those variants and their evolution to their modern tissue function, we can start explaining why they might be good or bad for us and what that means about unique human-specific biology.

Connecting this history to the modern day helps us start understanding how these traits, disease or otherwise, really work. And picking apart genetic architecture is fascinating! But these signals are really subtle I get at them day-to-day using mathematical and statistical methods. Coming up with those methods is a big job in and of itself.

Moreover, those methods have broader applications as well, and so I have spent a good amount of time pursuing some of those totally different applications. I’m working actively on a project quantifying gender differences in behavior of scientists in scientific settings, like at conferences or meetings. We’ve taken data for almost 14,000 scientists with 2,000 questions asked between all of them to learn how scientists ask questions and how that connects with their gender. The math is really the same, but the real world relevance is totally different, and that’s something that really excites me.

What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 or 10 years?

I have had an amazing time at Stanford, being a part of the excellent community of geneticists here, and I’m very excited to continue. I think there are a lot of amazing opportunities for incredible research, especially for human geneticists, in industry. There are some incredible datasets out there, and I’ll be really excited to start working with the giant dataset at AncestryDNA, where I’m starting after my defense.

In the next five to ten years, I hope to continue contributing to the space of human genetics, and to keep weaving together human genetic history with the way modern human traits and diseases work. I’m also really excited to have the ongoing opportunity to bring those results to consumers and to evangelize for the incredible value of human genetics and the power it has to connect us with our unseen, unknown history – and maybe even our own futures.

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

I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of incredible people on my journey. As an undergraduate at UC Davis, I got to work with Drs. Ian Korf and Simon Chan, the latter of whom passed away shortly before I graduated. They were incredibly candid and supportive with me about the scientific process and did an amazing job training students to really think critically about their work and the work of others. They also helped steer me into computational evolutionary genomics.

I was honestly worried about whether I’d find a lab environment as wonderful as my undergraduate one after I left, but I shouldn’t have been! Working with my advisor, Jonathan Pritchard, and my wonderful labmates has been a huge privilege and the best part of being at Stanford. Jonathan is really focused on thinking critically about stories – not only our own narratives as we work and write, but also about those of others, when we read papers together. He has a really nuanced understanding of what a mentee needs and especially as I finish my graduate work it is so clear to me how much I’ve gained from working with him. He also has a group with lots of shared interests; many of us spend time outside of lab enjoying espressos, hiking, board games or the occasional secret baking contest.

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

One challenge about how large Stanford is the broad spread of intellectual wealth – from the Genetics department to the Statistics department, there are people doing fascinating work that I don’t get to connect with in any other way. I feel like CEHG really fills these gaps for me as a student. CEHG’s yearly symposium and the weekly seminars (like EVOLGENOME) bring together that big on-campus community for feedback and discussion. Plus, their access to incredible speakers from outside Stanford has been a major asset – I credit CEHG events with most of my success job-hunting because they connected me with people whose perspectives and networks were a huge benefit to my path.

What advice would you offer to other grad students or postdocs who are considering pursuing a similar educational and career path as you?

I think we are in a really golden moment right now where you can choose to pursue genetics research in a remarkable number of ways. There is a lot going on outside of academia that’s also incredibly rewarding. There are institutes like HHMI’s Janelia Farm or the Hutch that are focused on academic research without teaching; there are positions that mirror professorship like the Sandler Fellowship (or the QB Fellow program at Cold Spring Harbor Labs). And, of course, there is a lot of industry research, ranging from the industry postdoctoral programs to full-blown researcher positions. It’s an amazing time to be a geneticist.

When starting my graduate work, I really lacked an understanding of these opportunities and the nuanced differences between each path. I think starting to understand it and thinking critically about what I wanted to do full-time was crucial to going the direction I did. I would suggest really investigating options and reaching out to people that have gone down different paths to understand what their day-to-day is like, and figure out how that aligns with what you’re hoping for.

Tell me what you do when you aren’t working on research and why. Do you have hobbies? Special talents? Other passions besides science? 

My labmates would definitely say my most notable hobby is art. I illustrate all of my own talks (mostly out of frustration with making bad block-and-circle chromosomes in Keynote) and I was even fortunate enough to win the Genetics Department jacket contest over the summer, meaning one of my art pieces walks around campus most days, and is even prominently visible at most CEHG events. CEHG doesn’t have any art contests, do they? 🙂

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