Yang Luo uses math to explore the interplay between DNA, the immune system, and disease

A statistical geneticist describes the method and inspiration behind her work in a #WhyIScience Q&A

When Yang Luo enrolled at the University of Cambridge (UK) for her doctorate, she went to study mathematics. But she had always been fascinated by genetics and the role they play in human variation and disease. While pursuing her degree, she found a way to meld her two interests: statistical genetics. The field allows her to apply her mathematical prowess to the study of human health by using computational tools to identify regions of the genome that are statistically associated with particular traits or diseases.

Now a research scientist in the lab of Soumya Raychaudhuri at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Broad Institute, and an instructor of medicine at Harvard University, Luo is using her skills to decipher the genetic architecture of tuberculosis progression. Prior to that, she used her computational approach to find genetic links to other immune-mediated diseases.

In a #WhyIScience Q&A, Luo describes her work and her motivation for pursuing a career in statistical genetics.

Q: Can you describe your research?
I’m a statistical geneticist. I’m interested in the development and application of statistical methodology and computational tools that help us understand the link between our DNA and diseases mediated by the immune system. If we can understand how genetics contributes to these diseases, it can help us better detect and treat them, and hopefully even prevent them from happening in the first place.

Q: What work are you most proud of so far?

Yang Luo uses statistical genetics to uncover more about the biology underlying immune-mediated diseases.

A: I’m fortunate and proud to have played a key role in pioneering projects that have identified novel disease risk loci in immune-mediated diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and tuberculosis (TB). At the Sanger Institute in the UK, we designed and analyzed the largest whole-genome sequencing dataset of its time in order to uncover rare and low-frequency variations in the human genome that are associated with IBD risk. And to identify host genetic factors that govern primary TB progression, I am now the lead scientist on the first, large-scale genetic study of TB progression in Lima, Peru, where TB incidence rate is one of the highest in the region.

Q: Who inspired you to do what you do?
Many figures in science have inspired me along the way: Andrew Wiles, Marie Curie, Richard Feynman, Paul Farmer, and many more. Reading about these great scientists and their work showed me the beauty of science and the value of perseverance. However, my family has always been my biggest inspiration and supporters as I’ve pursued my scientific career. They taught me by example never to let my dreams be bound by my surroundings. I think my mom was my first and best role model in this regard: she showed me by example that it is possible to have a successful career, be a wonderful mother, a loving wife, and a caring daughter all at the same time.

Q: You mentioned that reading about scientists inspired you early on. Are there particular books that you would recommend?
There is a long list of books that influenced me and shaped me as a scientist. For example, Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh made me feel excited about mathematics and made me want to choose it as my major. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder is another inspiring book. It describes the efforts of one of the world’s leading tuberculosis scientists to treat the disease in developing countries. It continues to influence my work today.

Q: What would you say to inspire those entering scientific fields today?
This is a great time to enter science, especially in the field of biomedical research. I feel we are at the beginning of a new scientific era that will revolutionize our understanding of disease biology and help to reform the current healthcare system.

As for young researchers entering the field, I hope they’ll bring with them all the qualities required to be a successful scientist—enthusiasm, creativity, determination, and an open mind. I also hope they’ll seek to communicate and share their scientific findings and vision to a broad range of listeners—not just to fellow scientists but also policy makers and the general public.