Scientist Katie Pollard PO ’95 nationally recognized for groundbreaking biology research

Katie Pollard leans against a wall wearing a black blouse.
Pomona alum Katie Pollard has been honored for furthering the field of biology with election into the National Academy of Medicine. (Courtesy: Michael Short/Gladstone Institutes)

Katie Pollard PO ’95 was elected Oct. 17 to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) — one of the highest honors in health and medicine — for her groundbreaking work in biology.

Pollard, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, directs the Gladstone Institute of Data Science and Biotechnology and heads the bioinformatics division in the UCSF Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. 

With 90 regular members and 10 international members elected into this year’s NAM class, the organization chose Pollard for “discovering Human Accelerated Regions [HARs] and demonstrating that these fast-evolving developmental enhancers regulate psychiatric disease genes uniquely in humans. Her open-source software for gene expression, comparative genomics and microbiomes are used worldwide.”

NAM is part of a federally chartered academic organization “charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology” and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service.

Pollard credited her double major in anthropology and mathematics with her interest in human genetics. She studied math because she enjoyed how it came naturally to her and anthropology because culture’s influence on biology interested her. 

In anthropology, for instance, she studied the behavioral differences between people from various cultures and those between humans and their closest relatives, chimpanzees. This laid the ground for her research of the human genome.

After graduating, Pollard earned a Watson Fellowship and traveled internationally. During that time, she worked in public health at a sleep lab. 

Pollard attributed her affinity to an interest in “how human behaviors, societies, cultural issues and political issues all come together to determine whether someone is healthy or not.”

During her time as a biostatistics graduate student at UC Berkeley, the Human Genome Project — an international scientific effort from 1990 to 2003 to sequence the human genome — achieved its initial goal, sequencing 92 percent of the genome. Completed in entirety this year, the project drove Pollard to use math as applicable to her interest in public health. 

After receiving her PhD, she received another fellowship and started working in a Santa Cruz lab that began to sequence the chimp genome. This is what led to her discovery of HARs.

“And at the time, we expected them to be mostly proteins. It turns out they were mostly not proteins,” Pollard said.

This took the team by surprise — they did not realize how protein regulation was important to why some people get sick and others do not, she said. 

In 2006, Pollard discovered that regions of the genome that scientists thought were just “junk DNA” were critical to the brain’s development. The name “human accelerated regions” refers to the fact that these regions were some of the fastest to evolutionarily develop in humans.

Importantly, in these regions are genes that affect, or regulate, the proteins necessary for cortical development — meaning these genes correlate with a person’s psychological traits. Cortical development refers to the development of the cortex, the brain structure commonly accepted by many neuroscientists and psychologists to be the one associated with some of the most complex cognitive processes, such as self-awareness.

“[HARs are] also tied up in our having psychiatric diseases that non-human primates don’t have,” Pollard said. “[Psychiatric diseases are] sort of like an Achilles heel. We got all these amazing cognitive abilities, but along with it, we claim some risks as well.”

Pollard brought up that the study of HARs has moved toward a “psychiatric disease angle.” For example, she and others have looked at which mutations were present in the genome of children who were diagnosed with certain mental disorders, while their parents did not share that diagnosis.

At each point in her career, Pollard said she did “a lot of different things” that look “a bit disconnected” to everyone. 

As a graduate student, she helped develop tools that allow researchers to adjust the range of the statistical measures they are using to analyze a set of genes. 

In her lab now, they continue developing tools for genomic analysis. The code for almost all of it is open access, so anyone can use it for their own research. 

She said rather than comparing the genome of humans to chimpanzees, some scientists compare it to that of mice and rats. 

Pollard said students should know they do not need to have it all figured out yet. In fact, she was only drawn to studying gene regulation, as “that is where the science led her.”  

“I became a successful scientist not by some linear, well-described path, but instead by following what was exciting to me,” she said.

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