As an anthropology student at Oberlin, Aaron Wolf became fascinated with the Neanderthal genome. Since graduating, Wolf has focused his research on Neanderthal DNA and how it is distributed across global populations.
Wolf went on to earn a PhD at the University of Washington. He now works as a postdoc in the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University, where he and his colleagues have introduced a new method for analyzing genetic traces of Neanderthal DNA in all living humans, including Africans.
Tell us about your postdoc and the focus of your research group. What projects have you been involved in?
I started my PhD at the University of Washington in the Department of Genome Sciences. I came to the department almost explicitly to work with the researcher who eventually became my advisor, Josh Akey. Most of our research group studies ancient human-Neanderthal interbreeding and how Neanderthal DNA was distributed across the genomes of different global populations. For example, a fellow post-doc, Lu Chen, and I just published a paper in which we present a new method to identify the portion of a person’s genome that is inherited from this interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans.
What made our method special was that we were able to use it to analyze African populations, which had historically been overlooked in these types of analyses. Additionally, I have a long-running project looking at how Neanderthal ancestry is distributed across the genome itself. My hope is that I can use this information to learn more about what distinguished us from Neanderthals and also about the evolution of human traits.
What has been your career trajectory so far, and why did you decide to pursue genomics research?
I’ve always been really interested in origin stories, especially those relating to human history. When I came to Oberlin, I remember learning about Neanderthals in an intro anthropology class taught by Associate Professor Amy Margaris, and I was immediately obsessed. At the time I was interested in more conventional archaeology, like studying differences in bones and tools. Then in 2010, a research group in Germany published a sequence of the Neanderthal genome. After I read that paper, I became something of a convert. I was convinced the genomic approach was going to be an incredible complement to archaeology and that it could really help us learn what it means to be human by using Neanderthals—our closest relatives—as a kind of foil.
After that I tried to take as many genetics courses as I could at Oberlin, and when I graduated, I went to work in a genetics research lab to get more hands-on experience with some of the new tools and analyses for human genetics research. It was still a dream of mine to be involved with research involving Neanderthals, so I looked for researchers and departments where I could do that: work on Neanderthal evolution using a genomics approach.
What are some exciting developments in your field?
I think some of the most exciting discoveries in our field involve the growing realization regarding how common hybridization/interbreeding has been between humans and our close relatives like Neanderthals. Some of this has come from discovering new bone samples, like the bone fragment that DNA analysis identified as belonging to the daughter of a Neanderthal mother and Denisovan father—the first first-generation hybrid we’ve ever found!
Other discoveries come from new statistical tools that allow us to identify more ancient DNA in the genomes of diverse modern populations. This is especially true of methods that are able to examine African populations, which have historically been left out of these types of analyses because of methodological limitations. The fact that we are discovering Neanderthal DNA, and the DNA of other archaic human relatives in African populations is really exciting. Hybridization between different human groups and close relatives has clearly been a common feature of our history, shaping our genome and our evolution in ways we are just beginning to understand.
You double majored in anthropology and biology. What were some advantages of your undergraduate experience at Oberlin?
I think the biggest benefit I found at Oberlin was the breadth of what I was able to study. At Oberlin it was so easy to take classes in anything that interested me. It wasn’t like I was locked into a very specific track, or was blocked from taking any courses I wanted. After being at a number of different academic institutions, I think it’s something that really makes Oberlin exceptional. That breadth of experience helped me move between different fields (anthropology, genomics) and different research types (archaeological excavation, laboratory chemistry, computational genomics).
I also really appreciated Oberlin’s emphasis on writing proficiency. I’m definitely more comfortable writing manuscripts, review articles, or media pieces than I think is the case for colleagues who’ve had more technically focused training.
What are your goals after you finish your postdoc?
During my PhD program, I realized what I enjoyed most were the opportunities to communicate about the sciences—writing reviews, giving presentations. I’ve also become really invested in improving the public’s understanding about genetics and genetic data, which I think is important as more and more people are coming into contact with their genetic data through medical and direct-to-consumer genetic tests.
So I’ve been looking at a lot of science communication and science policy/advocacy jobs; positions where I can leverage my scientific background and help people better understand their genetic information and how to safely use it. I’d also love to find some creative outlets for my research experience, like maybe a scientific advisor in Hollywood.
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