This is another in our profiles of researchers in the early stages of their careers who are working on Genome Alberta funded projects.
What do cooking and parasites have in common? Hopefully not much, but they are both interests of Emily Herman, post-doctoral researcher, Livestock Gentec, Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta (U of A). As her research career begins to blossom, it seems that Herman’s mix of curiosity and determination is a recipe for success.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Herman earned a B.Sc. in Immunology and Infection at the U of A. During the summers, she conducted research in a laboratory setting for Dr. Joel Dacks in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, studying molecular evolution of single-celled eukaryotes (organisms whose cells have a nucleus enclosed within membranes).
“I was most interested in studying how parasites of humans and animals evolve from related non-parasitic organisms,” said Herman. “Dr. Dacks was very supportive of my research goals, and after a few summers and research courses spent in the lab, he offered me a graduate position.”
In 2017, she completed her PhD at the U of A in Dr. Dacks’ lab. Her main project focused on Naegleria fowleri, a single-celled organism colloquially known as the “brain-eating amoeba”. As the name implies, this organism infects humans by travelling up the nose and into the brain, usually when people are swimming in warm, stagnant, freshwater environments.
Following her PhD, Herman did a one-year post-doc studying microbial eukaryotic biodiversity associated with Oil Sands reclamation. She then began a post-doc with Dr. Paul Stothard on the Efficient Dairy Genome Project, a comprehensive study on the use of genomics to improve feed efficiency and lower methane emissions in dairy cattle.
“I knew that I wanted to transition to applied research after my PhD, and I met with Dr. Stothard about the possibility of doing a post-doc in his lab. A member of his group also worked on the Oil Sands reclamation biodiversity project, so I was aware of his work on bovine genomics.”
The project was a good fit for Herman. She has always been interested in how differences in genes can influence traits in an organism, whether that trait is parasitism in microbes or feed efficiency and methane production in cattle.
Unlocking key variants
“My main area of research involves the discovery and annotation of single nucleotide variants from bovine sequence data. There can be a lot of genetic variation between individual animals, much of which is basically inconsequential. The challenging part - which I find the most interesting - is finding the key variants in this ‘noise’ that can be reliably associated with observed traits.”
She was also excited to work on a project that would directly impact, and benefit, Canadians and industry. In terms of day to day involvement in the study, her primary role is writing computer programs and scripts; for example, to assess the accuracy of variant calls, which are the processes that identify variants from sequence data.
“Because our data files include tens of thousands of variants from hundreds of animals, I try to create tools that process data very efficiently in terms of time and computational power.”
Labour of love
Of course, we all yearn to rekindle our first love, which for Herman was the single-celled eukaryote. To that end, she has some ongoing projects with collaborators from her PhD that she pursues in her spare time. She is currently assembling the genomes of about 40 algae and other microbial eukaryotes from taxonomic groups where there is little or no genomic information available.
Since she sits at a computer for most of the day, Herman strives to be active at night and on weekends. She loves weightlifting and bouldering, a form of rock climbing that is performed on small rock formations or artificial rock walls without the use of ropes or harnesses.
“I also enjoy cooking, baking and, of course, eating. My husband and I have a passion for travelling as well, so we try to indulge that when time permits.”
In these early days of her career, Herman is trying to keep her options and mind open.
“I think that no matter where my career takes me, I would always like to continue doing genomic research in some capacity. There is still so much left to discover, no matter what the organism of interest may be.”