Fellows Feature: Katya Mack

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Images courtesy of Katya Mack.

Katya’s work focuses on regulatory evolution on multiple times depths. She uses large-scale genomic datasets to uncover Darwin’s “mystery of mysteries”: how species are formed and maintained, as well as how populations adapt to new environments. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Hunter Fraser’s lab at Stanford University.

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

I grew up near Chicago, IL. When I was a child, I never envisioned growing up to be a scientist. I come from a family of really curious people who are fascinated by the natural world, but none of whom pursued science professionally. I remember spending a lot of my childhood being outside – hiking, backpacking, hunting for newts. I think this time led to an early appreciation for biological diversity.

After graduating high school, I attended University of Michigan, where I earned a BS in Anthropology. It was in college, after working in a research lab, that I first realized that a career in science was an option for me. I then pursued a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, where I worked with Michael Nachman in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. There, I studied gene regulation and the genomic basis of speciation and adaptation in house mice. Now, I am a postdoctoral fellow in Hunter Fraser’s lab here at Stanford.

How did you end up here? How did you first become interested in genetics and science?

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I really started to become interested in genetics in college. After starting college as a visual arts major, I began taking classes in the Anthropology department because I was fascinated by human evolution. It was at this time when the first Neanderthal genome was published, and I remember being absolutely amazed by what we could understand about an extinct group and human evolution from genetics alone. It was this fascination that led to me working as a research assistant as an undergraduate and eventually pursuing a PhD. Now, I see studying genetics as a way to understand the amazing diversity of lifeforms we see on earth, including humans. I think it is really fascinating to understand the common processes that allow species to adapt to life on earth.

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

My research is focused on understanding the role of gene regulation in evolutionary processes. Gene regulation is the process of controlling how genes are expressed (e.g., turned on or off). In the past, there has been more of an emphasis on understanding changes in the genes themselves, rather than changes to gene expression. However, there is now evidence that a lot of evolutionary change happens on the level of gene regulation.

A good reference point I always come back to is that human and chimpanzees are actually very similar on the protein level. The similarity of humans and chimpanzees on the protein level means that many of the amazing anatomical and behavioral differences between humans and our closest living relatives are not due to changes in proteins themselves, but how they are modulated.

To understand the role of gene regulation in evolutionary processes, I’ve been working with a variety of systems to characterize gene expression differences within and between species and associating these differences with phenotypes. For example, a project that I worked on during my PhD looked at how genetic variants associated with changes in gene expression contributed to body size variation in mice. Mice in the eastern United States vary in size based on a temperature gradient. Mice in New York are larger and fatter to reduce heat loss and contend with colder temperatures, while mice in Florida are smaller and lighter. We found that changes in gene regulation contributed to a large component of the variation in body mass in these mice – and interestingly, the genes we identified were ones that had also been associated with body weight variation in humans.

The results of this research can help provide a framework for understanding the role of gene regulation in phenotypic evolution. The long-term next steps will be to incorporate what we are learning from gene expression evolution in different systems to characterize general patterns and build accurate predictive models.

Briefly, what’s the coolest thing about your work?

I think the coolest thing about my work is being able to look at the diversity we see in nature, chipping away at the “how” of it, and identifying generalities that cross different realms of life on earth.

Were there people (or one person) in particular to whom you would attribute your professional success?

I’ve been really fortunate to be mentored by fantastic people and also receive a lot of support from friends and family. One of my earliest research experiences was as an undergraduate research assistant in Dr. Patricia Wittkopp’s lab at the University of Michigan. At the time I didn’t have any idea what a career in science even looked like. I was fortunate that this formative experience in a lab was really positive: I was working with smart, but patient, people on a project that I found really interesting and challenging.

I remember at one point, the postdoc whose project I was working on handed me an “introduction to programming” book and basically said, you know our question, here’s the data, figure out how to answer it. I had room to learn on my own, but if I got stuck, I also had someone to check in with. When I work with undergraduates now, I always look to that experience as a model for how to successfully mentor students.

In the time since then, I have been really fortunate to be mentored by many other fantastic people like my PhD advisor at UC Berkeley, Michael Nachman, other faculty and colleagues at UC Berkeley and other institutions, and now Hunter Fraser here at Stanford.

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

I hope to continue pursuing a career in science, either as a university professor or in industry. My hope is that I will be able to continue addressing interesting questions with big genomics datasets!

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

My first piece of advice is to seek out good mentors. I think a big component of how much I’ve enjoyed my time in science thus far comes down to the supportive mentors I’ve had. A good mentor for you can be very different than a good mentor for someone else, so I believe figuring out what you want/need from a mentor and communicating those needs is essential for a positive mentor-mentee relationship.

Second, I think it’s important to say “yes” to opportunities when they arise. While you want to spend the majority of your time pursuing the work you are ultimately the most passionate about, taking on other opportunities – like interesting side projects, teaching a short course, or volunteering in your department and community — can be really valuable. I see this strategy as serving two purposes: 1) when one or more things fail – which they will – you always have something you are making progress on, and 2) you’ll continue stretching yourself and gain a more diverse skill set in the long run.

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

CEHG is incredibly valuable because it brings together scientists of different disciplines who are using genomic and genetics tools and datasets, fostering interdisciplinary and collaborative research. It provides researchers in the Stanford community an opportunity to expand their network of potential collaborators through participation in the center’s activities. Biological research is increasingly dependent on interdisciplinary efforts, and interdisciplinary approaches have really benefited my research. I see CEHG’s efforts to foster this collaborative environment as really valuable for the Stanford community.

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

I have more hobbies than I can reasonably keep up with. I love camping, hiking, and just enjoying the outdoors. On the more creative end of the spectrum, I enjoy painting, crafting, and have recently taken up embroidery. I also always find time to read; I particularly enjoy science fiction and nonfiction adventure books.

 

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