Ani Manichaikul: Inserting Ethics into the Computational World

by Helen Do '20 for Silver Quest

2019 Magnet Research Convention
Walking into the building, Ani Manichaikul, Class of '99, was hit with deja vu at the site of her old high school. From Blair student to unconventional Stanford math major, Manichaikul, now an assistant professor at the University of Virginia in the field of genomics and biostatistics, presented as the Distinguished Magnet Alumni for the 27th annual Magnet Research Convention on January 10, 2019. Manichaikul’s class was the first to graduate out of the new Blair building in 1999. Her most prominent memories of the magnet referred to fellow classmates and the environment they fostered; being surrounded by the abundance of hardworking and motivated students inspired her to work hard as well.  Blair prepared her for juggling many responsibilities, which proved useful in both her career and being the mother of four children.

Manichaikul grew up in Montgomery County in the presence of her father, an engineer, and grandfather, a retired physicist who taught her math and science—subjects that always interested her. She began learning UNIX in ninth grade, which played a major part in her career. Her senior research project was done with the mentorship of Dennis Drayna, in a genetics and molecular biology lab at the NIH. She analyzed data on distorted tune tests, which pertained to the genetics of sound pitch perception. At the time, she was not sure of choosing this for her career, but she felt lucky to be able to explore a research project that really interested her.

Ani Manichaikul
Manichaikul then became a math major at Stanford University, but she didn’t want to be “a regular math major”; she also took classes in philosophy, ethics, and religious studies. With a passion to incorporate more diversity into the world, she joined the Ethics in Society program, where she realized making philosophical arguments was not for her. She also tried volunteering at a biology lab with David Botstein, one of the early proponents of microarrays. Intent on exploring more interests, she turned down an opportunity to work with microarrays to instead plate yeast samples and look at their growth curves, which she found she was not good at. She then got her PhD in biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University.

Now, as an assistant professor at the Center for Public Health Genomics and the Biostatistics Section in Public Health Sciences, Manichaikul has the flexibility to conduct research projects that interest her. She focuses on “analysis of genome-wide association studies in the multi-ethnic cohort studies.” The lab that she researches in has access to a large number of data sets with demographic characteristics and disease status. By systematically going through a whole genome and setting a p-value threshold, she analyzes the frequencies of certain genetic variants in diseased and non-diseased people. Her work helps to identify combinations of different genetic variants that increase risk of disease as well as genetic pathways leading to disease, enabling scientists to develop targeted drugs. This would be especially helpful if in the future, genomes are sequenced at birth, informing people of their disease risk scores from an early age.

Manichaikul with some 1999 classmates
Manichaikul is now focusing on extending genetic risk scores for disease across ethnic groups because most genome-wide association studies have used European ancestry samples. She said, “Even though I didn't pursue my interest in fostering diversity through philosophy, I can make a case for the importance of ethnic and racial diversity in my research field of statistical analysis of genetic data.” Ethnically diverse data sets from the NHLBI’s Trans-omics for Precision Medicine project have allowed her to examine whole genome sequence data as well as multi-omics data in order to analyze such with emphasis on understanding ethnic differences in the sequences.

Outside of her work, Manichaikul likes to hike in the mountains near her home and cook, which she views as a creative outlet when conducting her own “experiments” and changing up recipes.

She ended her speech with advice for magnet students, suggesting that “it’s best to try and know yourself, focus on what you like to do…after a certain period of time, at least for me, I feel like there's only so much you can accomplish in one lifetime, so you really [have to] prioritize…I think there's so many amazing opportunities out there, so don't try to just think in your head what you want to do but really look around the world.”