Gladstone Data Scientist elected to the National Academy of Medicine

Katie Pollard is credited with discovering rapidly changing regions of the human genome and creating open-source software used by scientists around the world

SAN FRANCISCO, October 17, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — Data Scientist and Statistician Katie Pollard, PhD, director of the Gladstone Institute of Data Science and Biotechnology, has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), one of the highest honors in health and medicine. Through its election process, the Academy recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and a commitment to service.

Pollard is perhaps best known for developing a new statistical approach to identify human accelerated regions (HARs), which are segments of DNA that changed rapidly when humans evolved from primate ancestors. Many of these regions of the human genome help determine when and where important genes, including those associated with disease, turn on or off.

Pollard is also recognized for creating statistical models and open-source bioinformatics software, which are used by researchers around the world to study gene activity, genome evolution, and the microbiome (the collection of microbes found in the human intestine).

“As a statistician, I’m honored that the National Academy of Medicine and my nominators appreciate our contributions — and the contributions of data scientists more broadly — to biomedical research and medicine,” Pollard said. “I love coding and math, but what really motivates me is using these methods to understand how our body works and how it breaks down when sick.”

Pollard, who is also a professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UC San Francisco and a researcher at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, entered graduate school at University of California, Berkeley, interested in the use of mathematics and statistics for applications in public health. She was switching from class work to research when the human genome was first sequenced.

“I immediately became interested in using genome sequence to measure differences in gene activity between tissues and disease states, such as in tumors versus neighboring healthy tissue,” she recalls. “I also wanted to develop statistical methods that could help me and other researchers obtain reliable results from the unprecedented ranges of genomic data being produced.”

Since then, Pollard and his lab have made critical contributions to several other areas of research, including decoding how genomes work using comparative genomics; create statistical models, open source bioinformatics software and machine learning frameworks to better understand the human genome; and developing analytical tools to study the human microbiome.

Stimulating medical research with bioinformatics approaches

When Pollard began his postdoctoral work, the chimpanzee genome was sequenced. Because she had studied anthropology (including primatology) as an undergraduate, she understood the importance and potential applications of this new information and performed one of the first genome-wide comparisons of the human and chimpanzee DNA. This work led to the discovery of HAR.

“HARs are short pieces of DNA where chimpanzees and other non-human mammals have nearly identical sequences,” she explains. “But human HARs are very different from those of chimpanzees, which makes HARs exciting candidates for understanding human-specific traits, such as spoken language, HIV susceptibility and psychiatric illnesses.”

After scientists tried to understand the function of HARs for nearly a decade, Pollard and his team made a significant breakthrough using an innovative approach inspired by the fields of bioinformatics, stem cell biology and genomics. .

They discovered that the vast majority of HARs are not genes, but rather “enhancers” that increase or decrease the activity of neighboring genes. They also found that many HARs control genes involved in brain development and in psychiatric illnesses that are uniquely human, such as autism and schizophrenia.

At the same time, over the past 15 years, Pollard’s team has developed new ways to analyze the hundreds of species of microbes that thrive inside the human gut and play many roles in health and disease. Their breakthroughs could lead to the development of therapies to maintain or improve gut health. They are also helping to set the stage for the use of the microbiome in precision medicine.

“To make these discoveries, we first had to create the right bioinformatics tools to address the questions we wanted to answer,” says Pollard. “We then applied our tools to massive analyzes of terabytes of publicly available data, bringing together datasets that were not originally collected for the same purpose. And we used these datasets to ask new questions beyond what was analyzed in the original studies.”

She helped create several computational methods to better analyze typical data sets, including an approach that allows researchers to perform larger and more accurate analyzes of the microbiome than ever before. Their approaches are also faster and cheaper than previous technologies, making them accessible to most labs, not just those who can afford high-performance computing power.

For Pollard, this is one of the most crucial aspects of technology development: creating tools that can be shared with, and used by, as many scientists and students as possible. That’s why she’s a strong advocate for open science and a global leader in open source bioinformatics software.

“The machine learning tools and statistical methods we are developing can be used to study a wide range of diseases,” says Pollard. “It’s important to me that they can be made available to everyone who needs them, so that we can open the door to important discoveries by researchers around the world, in a variety of fields.”

Expand the role of data science

Looking ahead, Pollard wants to help expand the role of data science in modern biomedical research. Rather than her current function of supporting the analysis of experimental research already conducted, she would like to see data science set the direction for experimentation and technology development.

“What excites me most is using predictive models to drive experiments and developing new tools and technologies,” she says. “Having data scientists in the driver’s seat will also ensure that we design the experiments and machines that best answer the questions we want to ask down the line.”

Pollard earned his BA at Pomona College and his MS and PhD in biostatistics from UC Berkeley. She is a member of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, the California Academy of Sciences and the International Society for Computational Biology. She is also a member of the American Society of Human Genetics and the American Statistical Association.

Pollard’s election was announced on October 17, 2022by NAM, part of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences, a group of private, nonprofit institutions that provide objective advice on science, technology, and health issues.

Pollard joins seven other NAM members from the Gladstone Institutes: Jennifer DoudnaPhD, Principal Investigator; Warner GreenMD, PhD, Principal Investigator; Robert W. MahleyMD, PhD, Principal Investigator, Chairman Emeritus and Founder of Gladstone; Lennart MuckeMD, principal investigator and director of the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease; Deepak Srivastava, MD, Principal Investigator and President of Gladstone; R. Sanders Williams, MD, former chairman of Gladstone; and Shinya YamanakaMD, PhD, Principal Investigator.

About Gladstone Institutes

To ensure that our work does the greatest good, the Gladstone Institutes focus on conditions with profound medical, economic and social impact – unresolved diseases. Gladstone is an independent, not-for-profit life science research organization that uses visionary science and technology to defeat disease. He has an academic affiliation with the University of California, San Francisco.

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SOURCE Gladstone Institutes

Sean N. Ayres