Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: “Where are they now?”.
Geethika Yalamanchili graduated with a PhD in Chemical Engineering in December 2017 and now works at Ancestry DNA as a Computational Research Biologist and Research Scientist. Her work takes her back-and-forth between Salt Lake City and San Francisco where she completes research and brainstorms ideas and project with other scientists. More specifically, she studies the unique genetic code of human beings to understand what makes them similar and at the same time so very different from each other.
How did your research and degree from the University of Illinois prepare you for your job at Ancestry DNA?
The most important thing a PhD teaches you is patience. It teaches you that you have to prepare yourself to fall, to not give up, to understand and dissect your mistakes to see what exactly went wrong, and to learn from them and keep going. This process is what I experienced during all five years of my PhD. I think that this is the kind of attitude that a PhD program instills in you, makes you welcome in receiving feedback from others, and what helps you in improving yourself and improving your work.
How did you become interested in DNA research? Were there any experiences that made an impact on your career choices?
There are two types of people that you generally encounter in life: There are people who know exactly what they want to do and there are others who improvise and take what comes their way. I think that I fall in the second category. I came from a chemical engineering background and I wanted to study chemical engineering, but when I heard the projects described by different professors, I really loved the project my adviser described, which was in bimolecular engineering. It’s about using bacteria to create biofuels, and I thought that’s what we need right now. It’s what the Earth needs. It could keep us pollution-free. I had no skills to help me in that direction, but I really loved this project. Even if I could contribute a tiny amount to it, it would be really good. Once I started working on this project, I started learning more about DNA. And the point is, DNA is a black hole field—it just drags you in! There’s so much that is unexplored, so much that can be done, and for a researcher, this is a gold mine. You’re not restricted at all. You can let your mind wander into whatever direction you want. It’s amazing how much can be done in that particular area. So once I started with the bioenzymes project, I just kept exploring it more and more. And I would really like to thank my adviser Christopher Rao here because he gave me the free reign to explore whatever I wanted.
What is a normal day like for you?
When I joined industry, I was so afraid that I wouldn’t do research. I would just go through the daily grind and do repetitive tasks. But I am very lucky because right now, I spend a good chunk of my day doing research and another good part of my day brainstorming new ideas. There are different kinds of scientists here and each of them comes from a different background. It is really amazing. When you suggest an idea, everyone looks at it from their own perspective and keeps adding value to that idea until it actually becomes a product that everyone is satisfied with it.
What do you think are the most interesting, rewarding, and/or surprising things you have learned at your job?
It is really interesting that all humans have 99.5% similar DNA. The rest makes each human being uniquely different. Each time I do this work, it makes me reflect on the current global situation. How much bifurcation we’ve created among ourselves. How many divisions we’ve created. But it’s like – what are we even fighting for? When you look in the microscopic picture, we are all so similar. One of the most rewarding things about DNA for me is that you can actually find people – like long-lost siblings, families separated due to slavery, or families separated due to any other cause. So this really gives a nice motivation because we are narrowing down the microscopic part of life and showing that we are all similar. We are unique in our characteristics, but as humans we are very, very similar.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
Don’t hesitate to ask for help or go find help. With any type of graduate studies, it gets difficult. You’re putting five (or more) years of your life into solving an issue and very little of it is actually in your control. You have many ups and downs throughout the process. Illinois has amazing resources – there are so many people that you can actually go talk with. Surround yourself with a strong network of people (including friends and family) who can support you along the way.
This interview was conducted by Emily Wuchner, who is the Associate Director for Student Experience at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys boxing, reading, and knitting and crochet.