Seattle-based genome scientist gets to ‘play with DNA’

Meet Lea Starita, a Seattle-based genome scientist who is working to understand how our individual genes impact our health. Here, she answers some questions about her work.


What do you do? I am a research assistant professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and I co-direct the advanced technology lab at the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine (or the BAT-lab). One of the main goals for precision medicine is to be able to practice genome-guided medicine. However, as a field, we are really good at reading DNA sequences of people, but we are really bad at understanding the health risks or benefits associated with any given DNA change. At the BAT-lab, we are developing production-scale molecular-profiling technologies that we hope will accelerate our understanding of the impact of genetic variation on human development and human health, and in treating disease. The BAT-lab team also helped to build the world’s premier respiratory pathogen surveillance platform as part of the Seattle Flu Study.

How did you get started in this specialty? I’ve been on this trajectory since I took an awesome molecular biology lab class in college. They handed us the New England Biolabs catalog to use instead of a textbook. To this day, that catalog contains nearly any enzyme you could need for cutting and pasting pieces of DNA together. I fell in love with the puzzle posed by molecular biology.

What’s a typical day like? I am lucky enough to get to spend the day with my colleagues, collaborators, staff and trainees, who are all brilliant and creative scientists. My favorite times are when someone is at the white board drawing up a new idea or an improvement on an old idea. On the best days, I actually get in the lab to do some molecular biology myself. I love to play with DNA.

What’s the best part of the job? Dreaming up new technologies to answer tough biological questions with students, staff and collaborators. We try to answer questions like these: What is unique about each of the cell types in a human or animal? How do we understand the effect of a small change in a human or viral genome on health and disease? Although, I even find small process improvements exciting.

What surprises people about what you do?
They are surprised when we talk about how important creativity and communication are in being successful as a scientist. I think people think we are these nerdy automatons, and that is totally not true. Well, the automaton part isn’t true, anyway. Dr. Lea Starita