The Bioinformatics CRO Podcast
Episode 39 with Becca Chodroff Foran
Transcript of Episode 39: Becca Chodroff Foran
Grant: Welcome to the Bioinformatics CRO podcast. I’m Grant Belgard. And joining me today is Becca Chodroff Foran.
Becca: Hi, Grant. Thank you so much for having me today.
Grant: Thank you for coming on. So Becca is the head of R&D at Wisdom Panel, a pet tech company focused on pet genetics. Really looking forward to hearing about Wisdom Panel.
Becca: Yeah. I’m thrilled to tell you more. It’s been a pleasure working at Wisdom Panel, and we’ve been through quite a journey.
Grant: So you’ve been at the company two years, right?
Becca: That’s right. I’m coming up on my second anniversary. And just to tell you a little bit more about Wisdom Panel, like you said, we’re a pet tech company. We’re focused primarily on strengthening the bond between pets and their parents through genetics.
Becca: And what that actually means is that we offer an array of products that give pet parents insights into their pets and that’s cats or dogs, breed backgrounds, health risks, and different types of phenotypic traits. In the background, because I’m on the research side, we’re also endeavoring on the largest ever dog DNA study.
Becca: We’ve tested over two and a half million dogs to date over 15 years. And we’re just starting to scratch the surface in analyzing those DNA sequences with phenotypic information that we’ve collected along the way.
Becca: And we’re starting to uncover some really exciting associations. Our help, actually, is that we can use that information to both strengthen precision care offered to cats and dogs. And my personal hope is that we can start translating some of those insights to human medicine as well.
Grant: Like Elaine Ostrander, right?
Becca: Exactly. So we were in the same lab, and I’m sure that you shared this similar experience of walking by her lab every single day and her rows of accolades. One image that specifically is burned into my mind is a framed picture of, I think it’s a Nature cover where there’s a really, really big dog and a really, really tiny dog.
Becca: And that study uncovered one of the first major associations of size in dogs. The gene was IGF-1. And what Elaine Ostrander found is that mutation in that one gene was responsible for a significant amount of the size variation in dogs.
Becca: It also laid a lot of the groundwork for why dogs are such an important model in genetic research, taking size as an example. In humans, there are probably hundreds of single nucleotide polymorphisms that are responsible for the differences in size.
Becca: In dogs, it’s likely a few dozen that can explain 90 percent or more of the variability in size. Interestingly and quite usefully, the same logic applies to a variety of diseases in dogs, which is why I’m so excited to have the opportunity to do the research that I’m doing today.
Grant: How much work do you do in linking that back to what we see in human genetics or mouse genetics efforts? Do you see any similarities in genetic architecture?
Becca: Yeah. So I’ll start with the genetic architecture. And by and large, the genetic organization across humans and dogs is remarkably similar. We share 86 percent of our genomes with dogs.
Becca: The genes are in the same order. We have 23 sets of chromosomes, dogs have 39. But that essentially just means that the genetic order is extended across more chromosomes in the same order.
Becca: Going to phenotypes, there’s also a remarkable amount of similarity, some of that’s attributed to physiology. A lot of it’s also environment because dogs, more than any other species, shares our environment as far as lifestyle, the food that they eat, the houses that they live in, in my case, the beds that they sleep in.
Becca: So in that way, we can study a lot of the same diseases that impact both humans and dogs. There have been some discoveries in autoimmune disorders, cancer, neurological disorders, and dogs that have helped us elucidate the underlying mechanisms and human diseases and vice versa. So it’s more of an interplay, as opposed to taking one and then shifting over to the other.
Grant: How about dog evolutionary genetics? So if you look at recent selection events in humans and so on, you see prolonged tolerance for lactose and things like this, are there similar selective events in dogs with them sharing human diets and so on and so forth?
Becca: There are, and I’ll start first by giving a bigger picture of dog evolutionary biology because it’s unique. They’ve been subject to both natural selection and a host of artificial selection events. At this point, they’re one of the most diverse species on the planet, ranging in size from two pounds to over 200. They have different behaviors. They have vastly different phenotypes. And a lot of that diversity has just emerged over the past 150 years. That’s also the case when you look at nutrition. So you’ll find that different breeds require different types of nutrients.
Becca: And we’re just starting to understand, in molecular detail, what those requirements are. There are certain disorders, for example, hyperuricosuria in which certain minerals are not processed quite as well. And the list goes on. Dogs have allergies just like we do. They have preferences for different types of food. And we believe that a lot of that is associated with genetics.
Grant: What phenotypes are you looking at? Are you looking at behavioral phenotypes above and beyond just breed level differences? How do you gather that data objectively right? Because if you ask pet owners, I’m sure you could get very different answers from different owners of essentially the same dog.
Becca: You’re exactly right, which is one of the reasons why there have been an array of standardized surveys developed over time that ask questions in a sneaky way. So as opposed to asking, is your dog excitable? We can ask a series of questions about whether your dog barks when there’s a visitor, whether they jump up and down when you shake a treat bag, and so on and so forth.
Becca: As far as your initial question, we’re looking at a full range of phenotypes. We have the privilege of being partnered with Banfield Veterinary Hospitals, which has vet clinics across the country. And they’ve offered our genetic task to hundreds of thousands of puppies. We can take those genetic results and associate them with their medical records.
Becca: We’re just now starting to link the genetic data with the clinical data and try to find associations between various disorders. We started the study back in 2019, and we enrolled puppies. These puppies are now at most two years old. So most of them are just starting their lives. There haven’t been that many disorders, but we anticipate that over time will get more and more data so that we can understand the ideology of a variety of diseases. And we’re primarily focused on several of the same diseases that afflict humans, ranging from cancer, epilepsy, diabetes, neurological disorders, and osteoarthritis. And the list goes on and on.
Grant: So that sounds like an incredible data set. What are the long-term plans for that?
Becca: There are multiple. So the first is, actually, the medical data gives us a small window into the dog’s day to day life. We’re also in the process of launching a community science platform in which we’re going to start surveying pet parents about their dog’s daily lives, their health, their behavior. And then we’ll combine those massive data sets together and hopefully build out some risk prediction models.
Becca: One of the goals on the horizon is to start building out risk models for more common disorders so that pet parents can make more informed decisions early on in life.
Becca: If the dog has a really high risk of a particular cancer, they might choose to engage in additional screenings. If the dog has a risk of osteoarthritis, there might be some recommendations as far as curving the dog’s weight. So there are a variety of opportunities we have short term.
Becca: In the long term, we’re hoping that these insights can be coopted by veterinary clinics to make care more precise, more personalized, or pup-sonalized, whatever you want to call it.
Becca: And we hope that our insights will help veterinarians make more informed decisions about what types of treatments are given to dogs or what types of wellness protocols are offered to dogs. And finally, as I alluded to earlier, we’re hopeful that some of these insights will be translated to human medicine, and that on both the human side and the veterinary side, some of these insights could lead to additional discoveries in therapeutics.
Grant: So we have a career-changed service dog. It’s a nice euphemism for a flunky from Service Dog School. And obviously, it is quite expensive to have a dog sent out of a Service Dog School a year and a half or two years in. Do you think there are still variants to be found and so on that could be used as part of the screening process for service dog training? For example, where they can say this dog would be better as a pet versus we’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars training this dog to be a working dog?
Becca: Absolutely. We’ve been in contact with a variety of service dog organizations to help build out screening paradigms so that they can identify dogs that are more likely to go through their training programs, which can be thousands of dollars and a lot of resource for each one.
Becca: So if they’re able to more effectively identify, as you say, the flunkies versus those that will be successful. It’s a lot of time and money spent. So I’m aware of the a few programs that are in action right now, and we’re hoping to kick off many others.
Grant: Can you comment on the linkage disequilibrium (LD) structure in dogs? In my understanding, which could be wrong, the LD blocks are sometimes a bit larger and so on. How does that impact fine mapping? With a database of millions of dogs, how are you getting around these issues?
Becca: Yeah. So I think it depends. The general answer is the LD blocks are much larger. When people give that answer, they’re typically talking about purebred dogs, AKC registered dogs that have been selectively bred for multiple generations.
Becca: When you’re thinking about the entire dog population of the world, close to a billion, I believe about 750 million of those dogs are what’s called village dogs or street dogs or some combination where humans don’t actually control their breeding. In those cases, the LD blocks look much more like humans.
Becca: So pedigree dogs, those pure bred dogs, are much more frequently used in studies right now. And in those cases, it is generally more straightforward to fine map to the causal mutation. So those dogs, their LD structure, as well as the really great record keeping that breeders have at their disposal have made studies into the genetics of a variety of diseases very fruitful.
Grant: I guess maybe you could do a dog decode genetics or something, right? Where you have the pedigrees going back a bunch of generations, and you can genotype the living dogs.
Becca: Yes, exactly. We have a team based in Helsinki. We’ve talked about doing something quite similar. We’ve also been very lucky to work with dedicated breeders across the world who keep those pedigrees. And we’ve had efforts on going to map a variety of genetic traits and diseases through generations and generations.
Grant: And you also have cat products, right? Can you comment on what are the major differences between working with dogs and cats?
Becca: Everything. And I’m not a cat owner, but I’ve had cats in the past, and I think cat owners will appreciate that as well. At present, the products are quite similar. So we offer an ancestry report that shows that cat’s breed background, health risks, and traits. What we’ve found in working with cats is that their population structure is much more similar to humans. There’s much more admixture. There’s a lot of free breeding across populations.
Becca: And as some of our veterinarians like to say, that’s primarily because cats were doing a pretty good job at the job that humans gave them, which was to be pest control. It’s only in the past 100-150 years that cat fanciers have come in and have started to control cat breeding. And in those cases, you start to see the LD structure that’s more similar to what you see in pedigree dogs.
Grant: So what’s new?
Becca: A lot actually. We are super excited to announce that we’ve recently launched a brand-new breed detection system. And we’re happy to say that we’re now the most accurate breed detection system available anywhere on the market.
Becca: And this was a huge effort on our side. So we pretty much started from scratch two years ago. That’s where I came into Wisdom. And I also brought in a few lead population genetics from Ancestry.com and 23andMe. And one of our primary goals was to bring our pet parent community the best and most up to date science available.
Becca: So where we started was with a database that’s now over two and a half million dogs that represent breeds across the world. We’ve collected samples from over 50 countries at this point and over 15 years of documentation on the profiles of those breeds.
Becca: And we wanted to bring the insights that we’ve gleaned from all of that dog DNA to our customers. So in order to do that, we reasoned that we wanted to create a local ancestry classifier, which basically means that we could pinpoint ancestral breeds to very specific locations in a dog’s DNA.
Becca: The other thing we knew is that we wanted to leverage as much as possible of that massive two and a half million dog DNA database. And one of the challenges that population geneticists have faced since starting ancestry detection is a problem of computational power and efficiency.
Becca: So we started with that problem first to figure out if we could increase the speed of the ancestry calculation and decrease the computational power needed. One of my scientists named Daniel Garrigan, had this idea that he could take what’s called the Burrows–Wheeler transform, it’s an extremely efficient computational construct, basically, that rearranges character strings into runs of similar characters.
Becca: It’s used all over the place. So the primary uses for data compression, and it’s the basis of the bZIP compress. It’s also the B and the W in BWA, which a lot of people on this call, or excuse me, on this podcast probably recognize.
Becca: So he used that perspective. And he also recognized that back in 2014, Richard Durbin, who is a scientist at Sanger, published a paper on using the positional Burrows-Wheeler transform, which is a much more computationally efficient method versus something like a hidden Markov model.
Becca: So we could rapidly go through DNA sequence very quickly. It’s primarily being implemented in phasing right now. And finally, he thought he could apply the positional Burrows-Wheeler transform to the Li and Stephens chromosome painting model.
Becca: The chromosome painting model is, if you can imagine a map of chromosomes and colors distinguishing the most likely ancestral population in specific chromosome regions. So he proposed to apply the Burrows-Wheeler method to approximate the Li and Stephens chromosome painting.
Becca: And what he was able to accomplish is a much, much more efficient way to index thousands and thousands of reference samples and assign them to their closest match with a test DNA sample.
Becca: So what we’ve established is a new way of processing lots of data very quickly. And what that’s allowed us to do is to create the largest dog reference panel available and the most accurate way to predict a dog’s breed backgrounds.
Becca: We’re really excited, as I mentioned, and this product is now available through wisdompanel.com in addition to cat DNA testing there. They happen to be on sale now.
Becca: So it’s a really great opportunity to experience the new science that we’re bringing to our customers. One of the other really exciting opportunities that we’re going to open up in the next few months is a community science effort.
Becca: So I mentioned that we use a lot of the data that we’re collecting from our customers in key studies to help elucidate some of the genetic architecture underlying K-9 diseases.
Becca: In order to expedite that research and discover more in a shorter period of time, we’re going to start asking our community of pet parents about their dogs, and we’ll ask questions about their dogs behavior, their dogs health, their dogs longevity, and a number of other questions, similar to what human genetics companies have done.
Becca: And our hope over time is to start researching some of the information that our community has given us and then bring that back to the product itself so that we can start telling our pet parents about some of the health insights we can glean from looking at their dogs genetics.
Grant: Very cool. What do you think is to come? If you look way out, say, 10 years, how do you think genetics will impact pet owners, will impact veterinarians and veterinary care, will impact pets and service dogs?
Becca: Ten years from now, I believe that every single human, every single dog, every single cat, will have their whole genome sequenced. And we’ll be able to use that information in all aspects of our life from what type of diet we need, what type of exercise is going to enhance our longevity, what type of medications, what wellness regimes are ideal for our underlying genetics.
Becca: So much of what you’ve heard on the human side is also going to be true of the dog and cat side. We’ve seen over the past two decades or so that dogs and cats have evolved from a possession to an actual member of the family.
Becca: And what also happened during that period of time is that people and pet parents are expecting the same level of medical care for their pets as themselves. So now there’s a tremendous focus in bringing precision veterinary medicine up to the same level as human medicine.
Becca: So we’ve seen the market pay much more attention to this. Pharmaceutical companies focus much more on veterinary pharmaceutical pipelines that resemble human pipelines. And my belief is that that’s going to continue over time, so that the same types of genetic technologies that humans are going to start using on a day to day basis will also be applied to their free family members.
Grant: Do you think there could be a pet to patient pipeline, treat aging and dogs, and then take those learnings over to people?
Becca: Well, that is exactly what Daniel Promislow and Kate Creevy are hoping. They recently launched the Dog Aging Study. I think it was about a year and a half ago, and it’s been very successful. It’s NIH funded.
Becca: And their general position is that, as I said before, dogs in a lot of ways are sentinels for the human life and that they can be examined on a much more condensed time scale. So human life average is 70 years, dog average life, 10-12 years.
Becca: They can collect a lot of information about dog longevity over that period of 10-12 years and then hopefully translate those insights into applications for both humans and dogs.
Becca: To date, there has been a lot of interesting observations. One that we’ve known for years is that small dogs tend to live longer than large dogs. Why is that? We have some hypotheses. It’ll be nice to test them further. Are there exceptions to those hypotheses? Are there certain genetic signaling pathways that are underlying longevity or shorter life? And then can we reverse some of those pathways and actually extend lives and dogs? And then finally, the big question is, can we also identify similar pathways in humans and thus extent human life as well?
Grant: I wonder if you bootstrap your way into right into it. You get a revenue stream going in dogs and then use that to fund on the human work. Earlier, while you’re talking, I was hearing K-9 in the background. Can you tell us about your dog or dogs?
Becca: So, Peanut. Yes, I actually brought up Peanut during my job interview. I think it’s the only time that I’ve ever brought up my dog during a job interview.
Becca: Peanut is six years old and is a pretty funky looking dog. So we never really knew what she was. I tested her, I think my first couple of weeks on the job. When we bought her, she was supposed to be half Shi Tzu, half Bichon. For those that are familiar with what those dogs look like, each of them have what are called furnishing.
Becca: So they have furry eyebrows and a furry mustache. And Peanut has a naked face. So she looks more like a long haired chihuahua. That’s always what I thought she was.
Becca: And then I did the genetic testing and low and behold, she actually is a Shi Tzu and a Bichon, but she carries this unusual trait for both of those breeds and that she has a naked face, she doesn’t have furnishing. And for a while, when we had the old breed detection system, we didn’t have resolution into breeds on particular chromosomes. It was a different approach to hone in on the breed background.
Becca: This new approach is based on local ancestry, which means that we can map breed specific positions in the chromosome. So I got the Peanut’s full genetic map. And really interesting, on chromosome 13, on the top tip, she had two different colors, and those colors also mapped to the furnishing gene.
Becca: So it turns out that on that little tip of chromosome, her breed is actually Japanese Chin. So somewhere along the line, there was a Japanese Chin, or there was an unusual line that introduce this unusual phenotype.
Becca: So I have to say it was pretty fun to learn about her background and understand more of her behaviors and the reason why she sheds. And it really did help me connect more with our little Peanut. So that was a lot of fun.
Grant: That’s pretty cool. Is Wisdom planning to or do you maybe already have narratives like you get with direct consumer human genetics companies, where you have big explainers for things, and you can take someone through a little bit of a journey for the ancestry of their dog?
Becca: Yeah. So we actually were, I believe, the first company that introduced genetic family trees. So a representation of what a dog’s family tree could have been based on their DNA.
Becca: So I mentioned that we use local ancestry now, and we can use that information to basically determine what breeds came from mom, what breeds came from dad. And then we can go further from there, much in the same way that you can walk humans through their ancestors, migration through Russia, Europe, Africa, what have you, you can do something similar with dogs.
Becca: So you can trace back a little bit of Rottweiler all the way back in the grandparents, a golden retriever that was one of the grandparents, and so on.
Becca: We’re also in the process of looking into mitochondrial DNA and chromosome, and with those additional measures, we can track specific migratory patterns from the maternal line and the paternal line.
Grant: Super interesting. So what are you most excited about in the pet genetic space?
Becca: I’d say that pet genetics is a decade or so behind human genetics, and some people might look at that as a negative. I’m taking it as a positive, because what that means is that we can apply the learning from the past decade of them half from human genetics to pet genetics and hopefully leap frog with that information, even past human genetics to the next stage.
Becca: What that next stage is, is hopefully injecting some of the insights that we’re getting from the genetics into clinical practice. I’m optimistic that the change in veterinary medicine will be faster than the change in human medicine, and that’s for a few reasons.
Becca: The primary one is that the regulation is different, and in veterinary medicine it can be faster. Key example here is drug development. Instead of going through animal models and then eventually graduating to clinical trials, you can test the drug in the subject animal at the beginning. That does have an elevated level of risk, but it also means that drug development can go a lot faster.
Becca: At the same time, there are different types of regulation as far as devices and clinical decision support tools, where we have some more opportunity to work directly with practitioners to observe how these tools are impacting clinical decisions going forward.
Becca: So I’m hopeful that in 10 years, genetics is going to be one of the key elements in the tool box for veterinarians and vet techs and will be leveraged just as much as the standard blood panel that’s used today.
Grant: Vet schools better get ready, yeah?
Becca: That is certainly something that’s top of mind for a lot of vet schools now. There are just a handful of vet schools that have geneticists on the team, and I think that we’ve spoken to several that are interested in incorporating more genetics education into their fundamental program, similar to medical schools.
Grant: Very cool. So let’s talk about you. Where did you grow up? What were you interested in as a kid?
Becca: So I grew up in Delaware. I was born in Philly, and then I moved out to Delaware shortly after. And I was a pretty quiet nerdy kid. I don’t think I really realized that I had an affinity for school until seventh or eighth grade. And then I started to bring home good report cards. And I got attention from my parents, and I realized, oh, this is fun. So I kept on going that direction.
Becca: In high school, I’ll say that I was a legitimate nerd. I remember I was in this AP biology class. And we started talking about evolution. And I brought in a book that I had just been casually reading at home about the origin of humans. I mean, what 14-year-old reads about that stuff?
Becca: So surprisingly, I didn’t have a date to prom, but I think that that interest eventually evolved. I did in college, developed social skills, or maybe I just found a whole bunch of other nerds to hang out with who appreciated my nerdiness.
Grant: Now you go to the right college, you’re no longer weird?
Becca: Exactly. So I went to college, I went to UPenn, and I majored in anthropology. And I had no idea what I wanted to do. I tried out everything. I thought about being a doctor. I thought about being a lawyer. I thought about just not doing anything, being a consultant, which I think is what people do when they can’t decide what they want to do. So the whole thing.
Becca: Anthropology was always had a strength through my entire career trajectory because I was truly interested in human evolutionary biology, the origin of consciousness, migration through various continents, and that seed continued to go through grad school.
Becca: I did eventually decide to go to grad school. And I think part of that was thanks to some amazing mentors that I had as an undergraduate who encouraged me to stay curious and interested, and just enjoy graduate school and then figure out what would happen.
Grant: Shoutout to Zoltan, you’re probably listening to this. You need to come on the podcast.
Becca: So I’ll say hi to Zoltan, too, and I hope that you come on right after me and correct everything that I’m saying, or hopefully not correct everything that I’m saying. And I have to say that at the beginning, the connection between Eric and Zoltan was almost incidental.
Becca: So Eric is one of the pioneers genome technology in sequencing and had built a lab around comparative genome sequencing. Zoltan focused on neuroanatomy and development, which seemed like two completely different areas.
Becca: The way that they were the same is that they were both using a variety of organism across reptiles, birds, mammals, fish. There may have been some amoeba work in Eric’s lab, but the whole gamete.
Becca: What I thought is that, hey, maybe we can apply these really high tech genomic sequencing technologies to neuro and anatomical fundamental and figure out whether we can identify some key pathways that are conserved across very distantly related species.
Becca: In the end, we settled on an investigation of a variety of noncoding, excuse me, long noncoding RNA genes, and I can still rattle off their sequence of letters and numbers that don’t make sense to anyone else.
Becca: So I should credit Chris Ponting for first identifying these long noncoding RNAs and claiming their functionality, and Jasmina Ponjavic for doing some of the initial computational analysis to expose the exquisite conservation of these genes, which was really striking. They looked just like protein coding genes with a few exceptions.
Becca: So we just couldn’t figure out what they were doing. The other thing that was really interesting is that they were very precisely expressed in specific areas of the human brain, the mouse brain, the chicken brain, and that expression pattern was conserved as well.
Becca: I wish that I had a huge message at the end of this, and we discovered them, and we were intensely important for some biological pathway, unfortunately, and it’s often the case in graduate research, we couldn’t. We still believe that they are likely involved in regulatory processes. I actually haven’t looked at them for a while, so I don’t know if there have been further studies on them.
Becca: I actually made a knockout mouse for one who didn’t have a phenotype, which was is quite disappointing, but I think it certainly gave me a lot of tools that I’ve used through my professional life.
Becca: And what I tell my team over and over is how important failure is. It sucks in the moment, but it makes you stronger and it makes you more creative, and it makes you more intuitive. And it forces you to think in different ways and think about how you can not fail the next time or just fail better or faster so you can move on to the next thing. And I think that that skill in and of itself has been so critical to my success in startups.
Becca: And now at Wisdom Panel in product development, in particular, I think one of the mantras is to fail fast so that you can move on. And that’s certainly something that I think PhDs do very well.
Grant: So how did you get into biotech?
Becca: For a number of years, I had a curiosity in biotech, and I think that that started mostly during my time at the Genome Institute because it was so connected with biotech and academia. So it was nice to see the interface between them and the differences.
Becca: I moved to New York after grad school. I just followed my husband there. I was finishing up my PhD. I had just submitted my thesis and I was waiting to defend.
Becca: So moved over with him and thought it’s New York, I’ll find a job. I thought that I wanted to be a professor, so I was looking for a postdoc in the area. And I did find a quite short-lived postdoc at Cornell. It was at a great lab, but I realized very quickly that it wasn’t for me.
Becca: And this was 2010, 2011, funding was not great at that time. So I worked there for a few months. And I have to say Cornell had a really great professional development program, in addition to working directly with postdocs on an academic trajectory.
Becca: So they hosted a number of career development events and I attended all of them. One in particular stood out to me. So I went there. I listened to the presentation. It was given by an alum named Piraye Yurttas Beim on a new company that was called Celmatix.
Becca: At the time, it was five or six people, and she was talking about stepping across the line from academia to startup world and how she did it. And I was so inspired by her presentation that I actually just walked up to her right after and I said, I love what you’re doing, how can I start?
Becca: And two weeks later, I was at her office in the meat packing district in New York, and the rest of history. One of the lessons that I last thinking about it now that I’ve told several of my team afterwards is how important networking is. And it’s something that I hated so much. I hated getting that advice, but it’s really the best advice.
Becca: And through my career, I think that’s really how I’ve navigated. I’ve figured out where I want to go. It’s just by talking to people and making connections and maintaining them.
Grant: What do you think people do wrong when it comes to networking?
Becca: Not networking. I don’t think there’s too much you can do wrong. I think the worst thing that will happen is that you’ll walk up to someone and they’ll walk away from you. So you don’t really have that much to lose.
Becca: So I’d say just go in with an open mind and introduce yourself and talk about what you’re interested in. In general, most people are relieved that you’re making the first step in introducing yourself.
Grant: And now that you’re on the other side, what’s changed about your perception? What misconceptions did you have as a grad student and postdoc that you can now dispel?
Becca: I’ll start as a college student because I was so focused on success, and I had a really narrow definition of success. So I define success as getting good grades and being in the good graces of your professor.
Becca: I hit this realization in grad school that that doesn’t really matter anymore. It doesn’t matter if you got an A or a B or a C or a D. What matters is that you’re doing work that you think is important and engaging.
Becca: It took me a really long time to process that and actually make it part of my view on the world that success is great or financial success or the other way that people see you, but that’s not actually going to significantly impact your state of being. It really comes down to how happy you are, how motivated by work you are, that you have a good work life balance and so on. So it’s something that I’m still working on, but I think that it’s so key. And I wish that I had known that earlier.
Grant: Yeah, I think that’s a process a lot of top students go through as they get through their 20s and sometimes into their 30s.
Becca: Yeah, it’s funny. Actually, I had this professor and he had these two young sons who called his PhD students gradual students instead of graduate students. And that really stuck with me because I really did feel like I had this extended out of lessons through my PhD.
Becca: You don’t have quite as much responsibility, I’d say, as if you just jump into the corporate world. There are a lot more people looking out for you, which is really nice. I had great relationships with my mentors, and I think I’ve really lucked out because they were watching out for me and making sure that I was making productive decisions. But at the same time, I didn’t feel that push or that weight of responsibility until I finish grad school.
Grant: Right. What advice would you have for yourself five years ago?
Becca: Let’s see, five years ago, I had just had my daughter. So I had a six month old at home and I had taken some time off of work. And I was really confused about the next step, actually, because of all of the emotions when responsibility is running through my mind and probably running through most professional women after they have their first kid.
Becca: So I have to be honest, I desperately wanted to stay home. When she was three, four months old, I thought about just taking a couple of years off of work.
Becca: I ultimately chose to go back to work to start out part time and then ultimately to go back full time. And I’m so happy that I did. I can say it’s a personal decision. And I have many friends that have chosen other paths that worked out best for them.
Becca: But I think that what I’d probably tell myself five years ago is that looking now at my colleagues, and there are different trajectories, you eventually get to the place where you want to be.
Becca: It might take a couple of years longer if you choose to spend more time at home, but you’ll be grateful for the time that you spent at home, or you can choose to go back to work earlier.
Becca: Something that helped me later on is a call that I had with one of my mentors, Mark Adams. And it was actually when I was considering switching careers, moving from human fertility, where I have been for a number of years at Celmatix to pet genetics, which was pretty drastically different.
Becca: I was worried that if I took a step away from human genetics that I wouldn’t be able to go back. And what he told me really stuck with me. He just said, maintain your storyline. Just make logical steps that continue to build on your experience. If this is going to give you the opportunity to grow as a person, to get more experience in population genetics, to explore something that’s more consumer focused, go for it, and then obviously you can bring it back to other areas. So I could also pass that along to my younger self.
Grant: And how have you found the transition from individual contributor to manager?
Becca: In a lot of ways, it’s like going from a single person to a married person to a person with a family. So it’s actually nice that my wife followed my career that way, and I was able to apply some of my mom’s skills to play professional life and backwards.
Becca: So I think what that means is that you start thinking about people besides yourself, you need to. And I think if you’re a good manager, you need to pick your team’s interest ahead of your own in order to succeed. Otherwise, your team’s not going to be functional.
Becca: So what I try to do every day now is think about how this is going to impact this person, this person, and this person before actually making a decision. I’m also much more intentional with my messaging and my explanations.
Becca: I think that being a manager has helped me grow quite a bit as a person. And as I mentioned, I think it’s made me a better mom in some ways. As an individual contributor, I think that there was a bit more freedom to try and fail. But I’ll say that that might also have been because of the environments where I happen to have very supportive managers that offered me constructive criticism or support at key points that I needed it.
Grant: And do you have any final words of wisdom for our audience?
Becca: I think I found the most success in just pursuing my interests and satisfying my curiosity. And in general, even if things felt uncertain, they usually work themselves out.
Becca: And what that’s given me is the opportunity to have a really interesting career and work with really interesting people. So I hope that I can pass that insight along to my team and my mentees and my kids.
Grant: I think that’s pretty core. You’ll always be the best at being yourself and at doing what you like to do. And so where you find that intersection with what the world needs and so on, it’s a good place to be.
Becca: For sure.
Grant: Well, thank you so much for joining us.
Becca: Thanks so much, Grant. It was great catching up.