Faculty focus on Priya Moorjani

Priya Moorjani is an assistant professor of genetics, genomics, evolution, and development in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Center for Computational Biology. She holds a BE in computer engineering from the University of Mumbai and an MS in bioinformatics and genomics at George Washington University. Moorjani received her PhD in genetics from Harvard University, working with David Reich and Nick Patterson. She completed her postdoctoral training with Molly Przeworski at Columbia University and moved to Berkeley in 2018. At UC Berkeley, the Moorjani lab focuses on using statistical and computational approaches to study questions in human genetics and evolutionary biology.

QB3-Berkeley: What’s an exciting question or challenge that your field and/or your lab is trying to answer?

Priya Moorjani: My lab uses genetic data from present-day and ancient individuals to learn about human history, evolution, and disease. Genetic data can be used to learn about how different individuals relate to each other, reconstruct migration and mixture patterns, and understand how our evolutionary history impacts disease and adaptation. But these signals are hidden within billions of alphabets in our genome. The most exciting and challenging question is to decode this data to learn about our evolutionary past.

QB3: When you were young, what did you want to “be” when you grew up; did you always want to be a scientist?

PM: No, I never imagined being a scientist. I knew so few personally that the idea didn’t even occur to me. At one point I wanted to be a pilot. My mother wanted me to be a cop and an astrologist predicted I would be a lawyer. So, everyone was wrong. More seriously, I sort of stumbled upon research. After graduating with a degree in computer science, I decided I didn’t want to be a programmer for a big tech company. At the time, with the publication of the human genome, biology had the most interesting data, so I decided to take a leap and applied for a master’s degree in bioinformatics in the United States since there were few research opportunities in this new field in India at the time. The turning point came when I attended a random talk by a professor at Harvard who was working on human population genetics. I was immediately fascinated by the topic, and I am to this day. I did a PhD in that professor’s lab and the rest is history.

QB3: What’s something you wish that someone would ask you about your work?

PM: I’d love it if someone asked for specifics of a paper like the details of supplementary figure S58 on page 311 in a given paper. I think some of the most important details are in the supplements—the main articles are becoming shorter and shorter, almost like advertisements, so if you really want to know the science, you have to dig through the many, many pages of a paper’s supplement.

QB3: What’s your favorite thing to do in the Bay Area?

PM: Eat—I am a foodie and I love to go out with friends and family, try new restaurants and recipes. I also love the outdoors and love going for long walks and hikes and Bay Area is perfect for both!

QB3: What advice would you give to students who are interested in your field?

PM: My main advice to students, interested in my field or any other, is to find something they are passionate about and deeply immerse themselves in that topic or area of study. Also, cherish your time in school: it is a great time (if not the best time) to learn new things, experiment with bold ideas, and take risks. Enjoy the sense of discovery.