PROFILE: Sarah Tishkoff, the geneticist leading a historic genetic variation study
Sarah Tishkoff, a 2022 Wilbur Cross recipient and award-winning geneticist, sat down for an interview with the News about the human genome, ethical population research and rollerblading.
Courtesy of Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
The experiences Sarah Tishkoff GRD ’96 had at Yale will sound ordinary to any current student. She drank beer — albeit at biological anthropology lectures — met her now-husband at a party he bartended and even sailed at the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club on weekends to decompress. Her achievements since graduating, however, are anything but typical.
Tishkoff, now a professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and School of Arts and Sciences, is a National Academy of Sciences member and an award-winning geneticist. Her groundbreaking work on African genomic and phenotypic diversity has expanded into a host of revelations about the evolutionary, historical and future effects of genetic variation on traits such as disease susceptibility, drug metabolization and even lactose intolerance.
Making new discoveries is Tishkoff’s favorite part of the job.
“I sometimes feel like an archaeologist, like I’m digging down and discovering something completely new,” she told the News. “There’s nothing like that feeling.”
This, she said, is not an easy task.
“To get there takes a long time,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard and often boring work. So you have to be passionate about what you’re doing and keep your eyes on the prize.”
For Tishkoff, passion is an essential element of a successful career and has helped her make her way in the world of academia. If one does not have passion for what they are engaging with, she believes “it’s going to be really painful” to do the difficult work required to discover something new.
She noted that her passion has helped drive her forward as a woman in a male-dominated field. It helped her stave off impostor syndrome and to find purpose in her work.
Tishkoff chose Africa as an object of study because of its great ethnic diversity – the largest on any continent in the world – and because of the lack of resources that are generally dedicated to examining its populace.
“Africans are so underrepresented in human genetic studies,” Tishkoff explained. “And I think that’s going to contribute to health inequalities, because people won’t benefit from the findings which may lead to better therapeutics and diagnostics.”
Health equity has risen to the top of Tishkoff’s radar even more in recent years, as she watched the COVID-19 pandemic wreak havoc on global healthcare systems and further illuminate shocking socioeconomic and racial disparities in access to healthcare.
She hopes the pandemic may in the end serve as a catalyst for positive change.
“COVID-19 hopefully taught people that we should care about, you know, what’s happening around the world, because what happens globally is going to come back to us,” she said.
Jia Chen GRD ’00, Graduate School Alumni Association chair, praised the global scope of Tishkoff’s work.
“Her research has played a fundamental role in addressing disparities of ethnic diversity in human genomic studies and public health,” Chen explained. “This work is crucial for the lives of millions of people around the world who remain underrepresented in biomedical research.”
Tishkoff was not always set on genetics — she noted, “I don’t think I knew what I was going to do [career-wise] until I was 35.”
Even during Tishkoff’s period of self-proclaimed indecision, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Lynn Cooley described her as “a force of nature” during her graduate school days. Her research and ideas, Cooley said, were “always packed with interesting data.”
Tishkoff fondly remembers rollerblading around New Haven, attending drama performances — where she once saw Stanley Tucci — and hosting house parties for her classmates and companions.
“Anybody who’s a grad student knows how hard it is,” she said, smiling. “But it was also one of the most fun and most exciting times of my life, so it was both.”
The other three recipients of the 2022 Wilbur Cross Medal are Kirk Johnson GRD ’89, Virginia Dominguez ’73 GRD ’79 and Philip Ewell GRD ’01.