We’re taking time to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us to learn more about our early career scientist advocates.

Daniela C. Soto
Communication and Outreach Subcommittee
University of California, Los Angeles

Research Interest

What genetic changes underlie our uniquely human traits and behaviors? In the last couple million years of evolution, some fascinating changes took place that make us who we are. My quest as a scientist is to uncover the genes responsible for these phenotypic changes, including their functions, their regulation, and their history. I am a bioinformatician that analyzes tons and tons of data and uses computation, statistics, and biology to make sense of it. During my PhD, I analyzed thousands of human and great ape genomes in search of neurodevelopmental genes that underwent dramatic or subtle changes during the last six million years of evolution, leading to the expansion of the neocortex. This research not only sheds light on our evolutionary history but also has clinical and therapeutical implications. Some neurodevelopmental genes are associated with neurodiversity traits, and their characterization will help us better understand the underlying architecture of the neurodiverse brain, leading to more effective medical and societal approaches.

But we’ve learned many of our human characteristics are not so unique. Some complex behaviors emerged a long time ago and are shared with our fellow mammals. We can learn a lot, for example, about human attachment from the prairie vole, a rodent that has “pair-bonding,” a scientific term akin to love. During my PhD, I was part of the reconstruction of the prairie vole genome, which will be used to look for the genomic changes that led to pair-bonding. Not only can rodents teach us about love, but they can also help us learn about our minds too. In my incoming postdoctoral position, I will use the mouse as a model organism to study depression, one of the most complex and prevalent neuropsychiatric disorders in our modern society. Depression research has the potential to impact millions of lives down the line by enabling better diagnosis and novel therapeutics. Considering the influx of data enabled by the ever-evolving sequencing technologies, there is no better time to interrogate our genomes.

As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What interests you the most?

My dream is to lead my own research group. Per Richard Feynman’s advice, I have a series of favorite questions always in my mind that I want to tackle. I am especially interested in the workings of our brain and the interplay between genetics and complex human traits and behaviors. My focus is on humans and other great apes, but I believe in the power of animal models and “natural laboratories” to deepen our knowledge of our mammal brains. I am also interested in leveraging the newest technologies; I want to use state-of-the-art genomic sequencing to explore the darker regions of the genome, including structurally variant loci and repeats that have been overlooked before due to technical limitations.

I have a deep admiration for academia, the pursuit of knowledge, the development of innovations, and the training of new generations. That being said, I am always amazed by the wide array of biotechnological and biomedical research taking place in the United States and its tangible impact in society. We saw it firsthand, for example, with the development of the mRNA vaccines during the COVID pandemic. Considering the cutting-edge research occurring in the private sector, I can see myself answering my favorite questions in that context as well.

In addition to your research, how do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?

For me, pursuing an academic career has a scope beyond science; it is also a matter of representation. I identify as a Latino woman. (I am Chilean!) Unfortunately, women are underrepresented in bioinformatics and Latino women even more so. In my journey to become a principal investigator, I want to openly advocate for a more welcoming field for young women and other underrepresented groups. I am deeply thankful for the role models that have cleared the path for me in this field, and I strive to pay it back by advocating for the next generations.

Besides my advocacy within academia, I also believe it is important to make science (and genetics) approachable and entertaining for broader audiences. One of my hobbies is listening and reading pop-science books and podcasts. This type of content has tremendous potential to introduce scientific ideas and discoveries to people who otherwise would not have that opportunity. During my academic career, I aim to become an excellent science communicator and writer, using approachable language and entertaining narratives to drive passions for science in young minds of diverse backgrounds. In the long run, I believe this simple approach can attract a more diverse pool of people to our field.

As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?

I applied to the ECLP because I admire how the program provides complimentary training that scientists might not get otherwise. Academic research often keeps us extremely busy, and we might neglect to develop soft skills that would help our career and enable us to self-actualize. When joining the program, I had the simplest of goals: meet other people passionate about science communication and learn from them. I was not wrong. This was the right place. In my team, there is a group of people generating social media science content about the many funny little details of the wet lab, providing entertainment while demystifying science research for the general public. Others are writing blog posts or generating databases with home experiments for everyone to try from the comfort of their homes.

My own passions align with the team. I want to share the awe of science with general audiences. I believe that if we share science broadly, it will reach the ears of curious kids from historically marginalized groups who might see for the first time a place for themselves in STEM. But science, especially genetics, is hard to share with general audiences, let alone kids! How can we make genetics approachable and fun for kids and teenagers? My goal as a member of the Outreach and Communication Subcommittee is to develop content and material to tackle this issue. I am generating educational science content for families and kids to introduce them to genetics concepts, like illustrations and coloring pages, to provide as resources for the community.  

Previous leadership experience

  • Student representative in the Integrative Genetics and Genomics Graduate Group at UC Davis as a vice-chair and mentoring coordinator, as well as member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee, where we developed and analyzed a survey assessing diversity and climate in our graduate group.
  • Mentor at the UC Davis Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine-Sacramento Charter High School summer research program.
  • Volunteer in charge of generating graphics material for the Chilean Bioinformatics Symposium, the Northern California Computational Biology Symposium, the Chilean Society of Plant Genetics, and several other conferences and scientific communities.
  • Instructor and panelist in initiatives to provide bioinformatics training to students in the United States and abroad, such as the Central Asia Pacific Genomics Workshop and the California Undergraduate Bioinformatics Virtual Conference.
  • Volunteer in the Chilean chapter of Girls in Tech.