Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Richard She
Richard She is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Jonathan Weissman’s lab studying human evolution. We sat down with Richard to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
I'm interested in understanding the genes that evolved over the course of human evolution to give us the traits that make us special. I see myself as a geneticist at heart. A lot of the genetics research that happens in our community is essentially looking at the diversity between humans. What are the genes that make humans different from each other? I feel like a central goal for my research in the future is to draw a completely different distinction. Rather than focusing on differences between humans, I want to think about what are all the genes that have evolved in our shared history to make us unique as humans. Seven million years of evolution has occurred since the last common ancestor of humans and chimps. During that time, our brains have tripled in size, we've learned to walk on two feet. Cognitively, we've developed the ability to form complex language and to have an incredible amount of empathy for strangers and family alike. All of these special human traits have some genetic basis, and we all have this shared history that is going to be very exciting to discover. Big picture that’s what I want to do with my research, and I'm doing that by comparing humans to our closest cousins in the animal kingdom, chimpanzees.
Obviously, at a place like Whitehead Institute, we're not doing experiments with live humans and live chimps. That would not be ethical. In the US, chimpanzees are now protected as an endangered species, and former research animals live in sanctuaries. However, leftover tissue samples that were frozen have been turned into stem cells, and so now we have this precious resource to do research on. What we do is use these stem cells that were derived from little skin biopsies from both humans and chimpanzees, which have the potential to become any cell type in the body. You can make them into heart cells, neurons, gut cells, whatever you like. Through this Petri dish model, we can look at differences between our species and our closely related cousins.
Before your postdoc, you had another experience with chimpanzees. Can you tell me about that?
After I finished my PhD, I was lucky enough to be able to take a kind of gap year. I spent about nine months really trying to explore what I wanted to do as a scientist long term. As part of that, I ended up lucking into a volunteer position in a chimpanzee field research site in Africa. It was a wild, crazy experience. If you have read Jane Goodall, she's the godmother of this whole line of research; she was the first human from the Western world to really go out into the wild and live with chimpanzees. Ever since Jane, there are others who have followed in those footsteps and established these sites where over the course of 30 years, we have had consistent contact with specific communities of chimps, who learn to know us and tolerate our presence. They treat the humans as flies on the wall; we're observers in their natural habitat and we get to see all of their daily lives, their social interactions, the drama of their struggle for survival and dominance. We see it all, but they never interact with us—we never feed them.
As you get to know the chimps, you get to see their individual personalities. I would say one of the most distinctive things is, oftentimes they're pretty far away, up in a tree, but just from the way that a chimp moves and walks, you can recognize which individual it is. It's the same kind of pattern recognition as when you see someone across the street, and they might be wearing a mask, but you still know “Oh, that's my friend.”
What’s a memorable experience that you had while observing the chimps?
The field site that I was at is considered one of the more glamorous ones, which means that you have a metal roof over your head, you have concrete floors, but it's still pretty primitive living by what any American would be used to. I mean, we're taking cold showers every day. And the forest is a dangerous place. The animals that you have to really be worried about are bees, snakes and elephants.
The bees are not your normal North American bumblebees. The bees in Africa have undergone some sort of arms race with the local wildlife to become more and more poisonous and venomous, because the animals that go after their honey have become more and more immune to their stings. Chimps have just an incredible amount of pain tolerance and natural immunity towards bee venom. Their natural diet consists of these figs, which are incredibly pithy and bitter and really not delicious at all. If you ever tried them, they would dry out your mouth almost like a mouthful of cinnamon would. And so, when the chimps come upon a beehive, it's a goldmine of calories, and they will immediately climb up the trees to go break open the nest and start eating the honey. You'll see it dripping down their fur, and they'll be smothered in honey. The obvious result of this is that an angry hive full of bees will come buzzing out, and you'll see the chimps with bumps all over their face, they'll get stung one hundred times. The thing is, when these bees are mad, they are going to go after every living, breathing thing—like the humans who are only maybe thirty feet behind. So, when you see a chimp climb up a tree and go after that hive, it is time to turn and run. One day when that happened, I did not run in the correct direction, and a bee that was blazing mad came and stuck me straight in the cheekbone and was buzzing in my hair for probably a quarter mile as I ran down through the underbrush. My cheek ended up being so swollen that I couldn't see out of my left eye for about 24 hours. I took a full dose of Benadryl and passed out for about 16 hours. That was from one bee sting.
Courtesy of Richard She
Courtesy of Richard She
How did you end up in Jonathan’s lab as a postdoc?
I feel really fortunate to have ended up in Jonathan's lab. Jonathan's track record for training postdocs is really incredible. The lab is at the cutting edge of so many technologies that I really wanted to get into. During my PhD, I worked in yeast, which is one of the best model organisms out there, but it's very far from the kind of biology that I'm doing now, which is directly relevant to humans and our evolution and all of these aspects of human biology that I knew I wanted to eventually go towards. For me, joining Jonathan's lab has meant picking up a whole new field of biology, a ton of different techniques, large scale genomics techniques, that are making it possible to do the kind of genetic experiments that we used to do in yeast and apply them to human model systems now. That's a huge new frontier, and it’s exciting that we’re a part of it.
What did you want to be as a little kid?
My dreams of becoming an NBA star have really not panned out. I would have settled for being a bench player—even the bench players make good money—but that just wasn't meant to be.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
In non-Covid times, I love all things sports, whether it's flag football or pickup basketball. I used to be a pretty good badminton player, but I peaked at 16 and consider myself retired. I play the piano. I love to cook, and so that's been a big pandemic hobby. I would say my go-to classic is a butternut squash puree, and a new dish that I learned that I'm especially fond of is a Korean short rib dish called galbi jjim.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Staying in academia would, of course, be the dream.
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