Overview: Sarah Tishkoff, geneticist who leads a landmark study of genetic diversity

Courtesy of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Sarah Tishkoff GRD ’96’s experiences at Yale would seem mundane to any current student. She drank beer—albeit in biological anthropology lectures—meet her now-husband at a bar party he threw, and even sailed the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club on weekends to decompress. However, her achievements since graduation are nothing out of the ordinary.

Tishkoff is now a professor and researcher at the Perelman College of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts and Sciences, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and an award-winning geneticist. Her pioneering work on African genomic and phenotypic diversity has expanded to a range of discoveries about the evolutionary, historical and future implications of genetic diversity on traits such as disease susceptibility, drug metabolism and even lactose intolerance.

Making new discoveries is Tishkov’s favorite part of the job.

“Sometimes I feel like an archaeologist, like I’m looking for new things and discovering something completely new,” she told the paper. “There is nothing like this feeling.”

She said that this is not an easy task.

“It takes a long time to get there,” she said. “It’s hard work and often boring. So you have to be passionate about what you do and keep an eye on the prize.”

For Tishkov, passion is an essential component of a successful career and has helped her forge her way in the world of academia. If one doesn’t have a passion for what they’re dealing with, she believes it “would be really painful” to do the hard work required to discover something new.

She noted that her passion helped propel her forward as a woman in a male-dominated field. It helped her avoid impostor syndrome and find purpose in her work.

Tishkoff chose Africa as a subject of study because of its great ethnic diversity—the greatest of any continent in the world—and because of the lack of resources generally devoted to examining its population.

“Africans are underrepresented in human genetic studies,” Tishkoff explained. “And I think this will contribute to health disparities, because people will not benefit from outcomes that might lead to better treatments and prognoses.”

Health equity has risen even higher to the top of Tishkoff’s radar in recent years, as I watched the COVID-19 pandemic wreak havoc on global healthcare systems and exacerbate appalling socioeconomic and racial disparities in healthcare access.

And she hopes the pandemic will eventually serve as a catalyst for positive change.

“I hope that COVID-19 has taught people that we should care about, you know, what’s happening around the world, because what’s happening globally is going to come back to us,” she said.

Jia Qin GRD ’00, president of the Graduate School Alumni Association, praised the global scope of Tishkov’s work.

“Her research has been instrumental in addressing disparities in racial diversity in studies of the human genome and public health,” Chen said. “This work is critical to the lives of millions of people around the world who remain underrepresented in biomedical research.”

Tishkoff wasn’t always based on genetics—she remarked, “I don’t think I knew what I was going to do.” [career-wise] Until I was thirty-five years old.”

Even during Tishkoff’s self-decided tenure, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Lynn Cooley, called her “a force of nature” during her senior days at the school. Cooley said her research and ideas have “always been full of interesting data.”

Tishkoff fondly recalls touring New Haven, attending drama performances—where she once saw Stanley Tucci—and hosting house parties for classmates and buddies.

“Anyone who’s a freshman knows how hard it can be,” she said, smiling. “But it was also one of the most fun and exciting times of my life, so it was both.”

The other three winners of the 2022 Wilbur Cross Medal are Kirk Johnson GRD ’89And Virginia Dominguez 73 GRD ’79 and Philip Ewell GRD ’01.

Miranda Woolen

Miranda Wollen covers the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Law School news; She also writes pretty ridiculous articles for WKND. She is a sophomore at Silliman College, majoring in English and Classics.

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