What’s it like to work at 23andMe?
“You can see why they said you should interview me,” Sarah Laskey, a senior scientist at 23andMe said over Zoom after we’d been talking for a bit. I had reached out to the press office at the company to see if any scientist was willing to talk about their work, and they quickly connected me with Laskey. And she’s right, I can see why: She’s probably the most enthusiastic person I’ve ever interviewed. The love she has for her work and her colleagues shines through in the speed at which she talks and her joyful tone of voice. I was immediately intrigued to hear about her work.
“It’s a mission-driven company,” Laskey said. “To ‘access, understand and benefit from the human genome.’ People believe it. Everyone is so good at what they do and so thoughtful. That kind of environment is intoxicating.”
What is 23andMe?
23andMe is an unusual company, kind of between alt-ac, industry and academia. It has industry-like elements: It’s a big company, and they sell a product, DNA sequencing kits. It’s like alt-ac or academia too in that it’s more on the side of knowledge acquisition. The company also has a drug-discovery arm, but it has a program dedicated to pro-bono academic research collaborations, and a lot of the research there seems curiosity driven.
You probably know 23andMe as an ancestry DNA company. You buy a kit, mail them a tube of your spit, and they genotype your DNA and tell you where in the world your ancestors come from. They also offer health DNA testing, where they will tell you if you have risk variants for certain diseases. On top of this, however, they do all kinds of research that they publish and share with their customers.
What do scientists do there?
There are many roles for scientists who do many different things. Laskey is part of a team dedicated to doing scientific research. She’s not pipetting and extracting your DNA though; she’s doing research on the tons and tons of genetic, phenotypic and behavioral data the company has collected from consented research participants.
“We give our customers the opportunity, if they choose, to opt in to have their data available for research purposes. About 80% do choose to opt in, and that means we have a database of over 10 million people,” she said.
That’s a lot of data. Much more, orders of magnitude more, than most genetic studies. That allows scientists like Laskey to ask all kinds of questions about how genetics influences our lives.
She and the other scientists with whom she works take all the data, analyze it and put it to use for new tools and reports for the customers. “We just released a report yesterday about the genetic risks of developing preeclampsia,” Laskey said.
Not everything is so serious, though. They also look at silly things — like if you can curl your tongue or if you like burritos.
If you have done 23andMe, you might have noticed an almost endless stream of questions available to you to answer that they’ll combine with your genetic data. This mixture of DNA and life information is the data Laskey studies to find the genetic influences of behaviors and traits.
Laskey’s day-to-day work is doing experiments using the data to find what kind of model or algorithm is the most accurate to predict health and behavior outcomes, across ancestral backgrounds. She stressed the range of ethnicities. This is an important part of her research, she pointed out, because much genomic research in the past was severely biased toward people with European ancestry. She said she hopes her work can help learn about disease markers and health information that are applicable to everyone, instead of assuming, often erroneously, that the data acquired from people with European ancestry will automatically apply to everyone.
When Laskey started with the company, the reports 23andMe was giving to customers were based on published data that already existed. They’d compare your DNA to known markers for diseases, for example. But, thanks to research from people like Laskey, “over these last 6.5 years we are releasing more and more content based on our own data.” With the size of the data sets they have, Laskey said, “We can do things no one else can do.”
Laskey’s path to the job — and advice for others
The job, in a way, seems tailor-made for Laskey. She studied immunology during her Ph.D. but, she said, “I wished I could get two Ph.D.s: one in computer science and one in immunology.”
She started learning to code when she was still in high school, and she worked her coding skills into her Ph.D. work. Having that coding background and ability to analyze biological data helped her land this job, as the company was looking for someone who could get insights from their huge datasets.
Toward the end of her Ph.D., she knew she wanted to move to the San Francisco Bay Area and was open-minded about what she might do. To get an idea of her options, she just Googled “Where is the best place in the Bay Area to work with a biology Ph.D.” She found a list, and 23andMe was on it. “I looked at the website and applied,” she said. “I didn't know anybody and didn't make any phone calls.”
For others trying to work at a place like 23andMe, she said: “The advice I would always give people is learn how to learn. Get really good at learning; get really good at leaning into the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing something.”
In the fast-moving world of research and technology, what you study in school isn’t always going to translate exactly to a job. “A lot of my job now didn't exist when I was in college. You can’t look at school as ‘I'm going to learn all the things now and then do stuff with it.’ That’s not how it works, especially in tech,” she said.
To put this mindset a different way, she said: “A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of intercept.” Meaning: If you can learn and improve, that’s more important than exactly where you’re starting from.
“The other thing I‘ll say for the grad students out there is that all of your mentors are in academia. Just because it was the right path for them doesn't mean it's the right path for you. Don't be afraid of wanting what you want.”
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