Dr. Christina Vallianatos, Scientist and Educator
Christina Vallianatos, PhD, is a scientist, educator, and the current genomic education and outreach program manager at Jackson Laboratory. Her areas of professional expertise and interest include molecular neuroepigenetics, science outreach and education, and patient advocacy.
In addition to teaching in high school, college, and community-based programs and leading professional development for teachers (for the Teaching the Genome Generation program), Dr. Vallianatos is the creator of an online genomics literacy tool and a graduate instructor of bioinformatics at Tufts University.
During her graduate studies at the University of Michigan, Dr. Vallianatos founded Michigan DNA Day, which began an annual day of service during which scientists share their work with students and teachers in Michigan public schools. During her PhD studies, Dr. Vallianatos began working with families with mutations in the KDM5C gene, which can be found in some people with autism intellectual disability disorder. This role grew out of her research on the gene and is work that she joyfully continues to this day.
Please note that this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] You have a PhD in human genetics from the University of Michigan. Can you tell us what sparked your interest in this field?
[Dr. Christina Vallianatos] I actually came to genetics accidentally. I knew that I wanted to study science since I was very young. I was always curious about how things worked and why. I liked knowing the answer…What really is there, and why are things happening. Through school early on, I saw that in biology. It’s the study of how the natural world works. You’re observing in science and asking questions.
In college, I got to work in labs and do experiments. You get to ask questions and find answers. I was really drawn to science for that kind of truth and honesty, observing how things work. In the classes, I found that I really enjoyed learning about the brain. I still think the brain is the most fascinating organ—it’s the most complicated organ that we have. It controls everything from our moods to our thoughts and our personalities. It’s just beautifully complicated.
And so when I was in undergrad, I was looking for research opportunities in neuroscience. I ended up majoring in neuroscience, and I looked for labs that were studying the brain. I was able to join a lab that studied neurological disorders, but they approached it from the lens of genetics—the genetic origin of neurological disorders like epilepsy or ataxia or ALS. I didn’t come for the genetics; I came for the neuroscience—but I stayed for the genetics.
Actually, I hated genetics as an undergrad! I got a very bad grade, I did not have a good professor; it just didn’t click. It was very complicated. If you would have told me as an undergraduate student that I would get a PhD in genetics…I probably wouldn’t have believed it. A PhD and then continue on in my career in genetics? I would have laughed in your face. It was just too complicated. So that’s what I mean by “accidentally.”
So I came for the neuroscience. In this lab, I was able to see more of the applications of genetics. Looking back, the classes, the theory, it’s a little bit dry. But then when you’re in the lab and you’re working on some sort of disorder and the context around it, like,’“Okay, here we’re studying epilepsy, and here’s one of the genes. When it’s mutated, it causes epilepsy or leads to epilepsy.” That was a better click for me…
When I was looking for graduate programs, I got this perspective that neuroscience is all about the brain, but genetics can be about anything because almost any cell in our body has DNA, right? Almost all living organisms have DNA as the genetic material or RNA. You could do so much with genetics and approach so many different fields…
I really liked epigenetics, learning about gene regulation and how your genes aren’t everything. There’s a lot of regulation…It’s a complicated system, and it’s beautifully intricate how everything is controlled just so in order to have all our cellular functions.
[OnlineEducation.com] Making learning relevant to students’ lives and real-world problems is so important, especially in the sciences and math.
[Dr. Christina Vallianatos] I think that’s very true. That really plays a big role in why I chose my career path. I left research and now am in more of a research-adjacent field, where I’m in the community sharing what the research world is doing with students and families.
I’m someone that always needed to know the bigger picture—the why, the relevance…I was always a very good student, but as an undergrad, the University of Michigan’s a very big school. It’s easy to get lost, not have the support, and get overwhelmed with all these big classes. Working in the lab was really helpful to me when I was an undergraduate to connect to those concepts and to learn that way…I actually liked genetics once I started doing genetics as opposed to learning about genetics.
Something I try to tell students or young people pursuing their studies is, “Don’t write anything off. Don’t close that door because this is just a little sliver that you’re seeing right now. What the real-world applications are can be very different, and that might spark your interest.”
[OnlineEducation.com] You mentioned in your email that you have a variety of diverse professional experiences—from genetics research to education to patient advocacy to scientific writing and editing—but that each of these experiences is related. Could you elaborate on that?
[Dr. Christina Vallianatos] I’m really fortunate to have all these diverse experiences….
I like to make connections. I like to build bridges. I’m the first in my family to go into science, to have a PhD. My father is an immigrant. He didn’t have the opportunity to even go to college. My mom, her parents were immigrants. She was the first in her family to go to college. And so, education was very much valued…
So while I was doing my PhD and doing research, no one understood what I was doing. No one got it. “Why are you working with mice? What does that have to do with the brain? Oh, you must be so smart.” I think anyone can approach science…It’s just having that right connection. And so I think that was always in the back of my mind. Even though I was on this research track, I always had this this thing in me to connect out—connect my family and connect others—to what I was doing. I was always bringing it back and sharing that relevance.
While I was doing research, I did a lot of extracurricular activities, and they were all community-based. I would do student outreach. I would mentor students. I loved doing demos for students and other organizations…I loved all those things that would connect that research world with the silo, into the community, the real life, the real people. I found that I was always making those connections…
I reflected on all these things that I enjoyed doing: making connections, building bridges, communicating, educating, and helping people understand science. That really was the push to lead me to this other path: to leave research and go more into education and outreach.
Two big experiences also helped push me in this way. One was my research that involved a gene that’s mutated in some people with an autism intellectual disability disorder, KDM5C. I worked on molecular genetics…to study why alterations in that gene might cause this type of intellectual disabilities syndrome. This gene is expressed everywhere in our bodies, so why is it only affecting the brain or mostly affecting the brain?
That was part of my thesis research. I had the privilege to work with a local family that had mutations in this gene, and through that, I got to see the community side. I got to develop a relationship with this family…That was a really big influence to show me how much I liked doing that, how much they valued my knowledge. Being able to talk to them and be so knowledgeable about the science. That really influenced me.
And then the second big thing that happened during my graduate school is that I founded an educational outreach organization called Michigan DNA Day. DNA Day is actually a national holiday recognized by Congress…It’s to recognize the completion of the Human Genome Project, the significance of genetics and genomics research, and the potential it has for human health. It’s kind of like a Public Awareness Day in the genetics community….
At the end of my PhD, I decided to transition away from research and pursue something more community and more education-related….But I found this fantastic job. I got so so lucky. When I was looking at these other educational and community things, I had this position pop up at the Jackson Laboratory, a leading nonprofit research institute.
[OnlineEducation.com] And that’s where you are now, right?
[Dr. Christina Vallianatos] That’s where I am now. It was an amazing fit because it was at a research institute in a genomic education department…
I’ve had this opportunity to grow in my position over the three years that I’ve been here. It’s been a really wonderful fit to apply my genetics knowledge and my research knowledge to the content that I’m designing. I can make things that I wish I had!
We talked about how it was better if I had something that was a real-world context or something more applied, and that’s what I think about when I make my educational material now….
And then at the end of 2020, my PhD advisor said, “Look, we’re doing more patient-centered research, and you had such a good connection with the families when you were researching. You have knowledge of the science, as well. Would you want to come back part-time and just help us promote the lab, share what we do, connect with the families, and just help us in more patient-centered research and communication?”
It’s been a really nice way to still keep one foot in the research world and still have that connection to those KDMC5 research families that meant so much to me in my thesis research…I have the best job ever….
[OnelineEducation.com] Would you like to talk about any challenges you faced, particularly as a woman pursuing leadership and management in genomics, and what helped you navigate those challenges?
[Dr. Christina Vallianatos] Sure. I’ve been very lucky to not have experienced a lot of adverse events, from the #MeToo movement to other things that have happened. I haven’t experienced anything so atrocious. Most of my challenges in my career path have not stemmed from being a woman.
One big challenge was not getting into grad school [initially], not being able to pursue that next step in my career journey. But that was more of a personal challenge…Little things here and there we all experience, like microaggressions or not being taken seriously, or you say something as a woman, and then the male says the same thing, and they’re heard but not you.
But nothing stands out to me. In fact, I’ve had very strong leaders and women in my life that probably have faced those things. At that first big lab that I joined in undergrad…there was a very strong, tough professor. She’s a very senior person in the research world. To think about what she had to go through back when she was starting out in her career, it’s probably very, very different…
It’s not part of my story, but I think my smoother sailing has been because the women around me have been able to break a lot more ground and make my path smoother. And that’s what I’m hoping to do in my own way for the people that come after me. I’ve benefited so much from all sorts of folks, trailblazing and supporting me, and I want to do the same for the next generation. So even though I haven’t gone through something particularly horrible because of being a woman, I want to make it easier for those in my community that I can help.
I’m thinking particularly for the students—when we design educational materials, when we design events, when we design career exploration activities—how can I help different learner types? How can we make things more accessible, more inclusive? Make people that were historically excluded from the sciences feel like they belong because they do belong…
[OnelineEducation.com] It’s so important to see people that you identify with in those roles so that you can imagine yourself.
[Dr. Christina Vallianatos] Right. Coming from an immigrant family had its challenges. We didn’t have a lot of opportunities growing up. My family didn’t have a lot of opportunities [but they were] trying to give a lot to me. I feel like a lot of first-gen folks probably feel the same: this kind of duty to your family, but also wanting to carve out the path for [yourself]…
[OnlineEducation.com] I’m thinking of the title “Women Breaking Barriers.” So it’s whatever the barriers are before us: like what you’re saying, family expectations, whatever they may be, navigating them can be a barrier to where you’re going.
[Dr. Christina Vallianatos] Yeah, that’s actually a great point. I didn’t think about that.
I’d forgotten about this, but when I told my family at 25 that I wanted to pursue my PhD—that I wanted to go back to school after working—my family’s like, “Why do you want to go back to school? When are you going to get married and have babies?” The family life.
That is a family barrier that I had to overcome, right? The expectations of me and my community, and I’m going to do something different. Yeah, certainly. I’d forgotten about that. Certainly. That’s very real.
Perhaps it could be a female experience thing. I don’t know. I don’t want to generalize or say definitively, but perhaps that pressure is more on women to say like, “Well, why are you going back to school?” What if I was a son instead of a daughter? Would I have that same comment? I don’t know. I kind of doubt it.
It is a cultural thing to think about family and have that in my mind…The societal values of females: caring and family…those things that are all tied together very strongly, at least in my culture. Is that why it’s a bigger mental burden for me when I think about my family? My responsibility to them? It could certainly be related.
[OnlineEducation.com] I was reading a UNESCO report from 2020 that said that women make up only 30 percent of researchers worldwide. And that rate is only slightly higher in North America and Europe at 33 percent. Do you have any thoughts about what can be done to reverse that trend and increase the number of women going into research, specifically in genomics?
[Dr. Christina Vallianatos] This is a wonderful question and such a huge area. Many minds will be needed to make waves to combat this. It was my experience working with younger students and younger scientists that it’s really equal: 50/50.
When you’re in school, the interest in science, enrollment in science classes, and even enrollment in my PhD program was about 50/50. Sometimes, it skewed more toward females than males.
It’s later on that they have this “leaky pipeline.” I don’t like that phrase. [It describes seeing] a lot of people who identify as female, dropping out or not staying in these leadership [roles] or advancing in careers in research.
There are many factors, like people who can get pregnant, for example. [They] need a lot of different support. Also, any partner that might exist needs support for parental leave or time off. Academia is not always the most supportive environment for that, especially the research world, where it’s all about who gets there first; who discovered it first; who published it first…
Also, having people that look like you and have similar backgrounds to you in leadership positions. If you don’t have women in as many higher leadership positions, you’re getting this message like, “Maybe I don’t have what it takes because I don’t see anyone like me.” If you’re someone of color or someone with a disability, that can be a challenge to overcome…
One other thing I’ll say about that leaky pipeline: one thing I don’t like is it implies that there’s one end goal—that everyone’s going on a common path. Where I found my interest was away from research. I stepped off that track, but it doesn’t mean I stepped off that track and I’m going nowhere. I’m just on a different track. It’s a parallel track…I’m still contributing and helping advance the next generation of science, and I’m still promoting the research that’s happening now…
How are you going to get the next generation of scientists into your lab? You have to do something to interact with those students and support them in their science journey. How are you going to get your NIH grants [if] congress and the federal government don’t understand the importance of research? You need people [at] the government level to advocate. How are you going to get your therapeutics from your basic lab research into the clinic? You need people on the medical side of things, on the drug development side of things.
It’s just it’s a bigger world out there…After a PhD, you do your postdoctoral training, and then maybe another training, and then you can be a professor in your own lab. But it’s a very rigid track: certain specifications and certain salary levels that are not acceptable for someone with a PhD in any other field. It’s ridiculous. It’s complicated. It’s messy. It’s antiquated.
[OnlineEducation.com] What advice would you give to women interested in careers in genomics and specifically pursuing roles that have a leadership or management component?
[Dr. Christina Vallianatos]…For advice, I would echo the things that I have said previously. Really think about your interests and your skills, your aptitude, where you can grow, and what motivates you rather than thinking about this job or that job. If you focus more on your skills, it can help you find your fit in a lot of different fields, especially things that you might not have thought of before.
And doing that, check in with yourself every so often, because your interests change, your skills change as they develop and grow, and your life situation changes. You have different needs, right? Your family has different needs. Your community has different needs. So doing that check every now and then.
It’s okay to change. I think that is something I wish someone had told me. It’s okay to either change your mind, or it’s okay to switch tracks. As long as it’s a step for you and what you want as opposed to doing it for someone else. It’s a step in the right direction.
Believe in yourself as much as possible and surround yourself with good people…Like I said, I’m here because of the support of so many people. And I’m really grateful for that…try to surround yourself with people that believe in you, and that will help you and support you…
Know thyself…That’s really important to remember: to know yourself, to explore yourself…I could have had a great career as an academic. I had a very positive experience in school, but I intentionally chose something else. Everyone’s always gonna have their opinion. Everyone’s always gonna face something…
Go for it, as much as possible, considering your obligations and the people around you and your circumstances. Go for it.
[OnlineEducation.com] I have one last question. You’ve already accumulated a lot of experience in your career so far. What accomplishments or experiences are you most proud of? What goals do you have for your current and future work in the field?
[Dr. Christina Vallianatos] I’m so lucky. A lot of what I do now is public-facing, and that’s what I needed. I get a lot of joy from seeing other people’s joy. I’m a recovering people-pleaser. I think that’s why I gravitated to this because oftentimes in research, you do your experiment, share it with your lab, write a paper about it, but there’s not a ton of immediate feedback.
And with my courses, with my workshops, anything I’m doing in the community with students or teachers, that’s pretty immediate feedback. I love that. I thrive on that. And I really mean all feedback. If something’s a dud, if something’s not working, you also know that right away, so [you] can adapt…
The most rewarding thing for me is working in the community. From the KDM5C families to the students that I teach, from the students I think about when I’m designing courses to the teachers that I interact with…That community aspect is the most rewarding for me because everything I do is not for me; it’s for them.