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.
Sarah Renee Phillips
I am interested in the ecology and evolution of primate immunity and infectious disease. My interest lies specifically among great apes, where the genetic architecture of the host immune system and many phenotypes are similar to, or the same as, prehistoric and modern Homo sapiens. Most of my research investigates the relationship between the primate immune system and/or immunogenetics and pathogen and parasite infection. I am driven by questions identifying sources of variation in host susceptibility, resistance, and tolerance to pathogen and parasite infection, and how primate genes interact with the environment to produce that variation. My current research focuses on how host immunophenotype—as directed by genetic, ecological, and sociological traits and conditions—influences pathogen and parasite evolution, particularly with viruses capable of causing epidemics and pandemics, like the SARS-CoV-2 virus from the current pandemic, and other threats like HIV and Ebola viruses. This work explores how viral evolution within hosts and patients scales up to population-level viral variants capable of causing unique epidemiology and varied public and wildlife health concerns among human and non-human primates, respectively. My dissertation research focused on life history tradeoffs between reproduction and immunity in wild chimpanzees from Uganda and Tanzania, as well as the relationship between chimpanzee Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) genes and signs of viral respiratory illness and gastrointestinal parasite infection. My dissertation work shaped who I am as a scientist and refined research aims related to my postdoctoral research that addresses the evolution of HIV and SARS-CoV-2 viruses in hosts with varied strength in immune function.
I am committed to understanding immunity and infectious disease in humans and wildlife in natural environments, where resources are often stressed, where intrinsic and extrinsic traits contribute to disease states, and where coinfection with multiple pathogens is common. For this reason, my research program includes field and laboratory components and incorporates theory and methods from multiple scientific disciplines, including primatology, genetics, immunology, parasitology, virology, endocrinology, life history evolution, computer science, and statistics. While my research falls solidly within the basic sciences, primarily biology and anthropology, my work often involves implications and findings relevant to medical and veterinary science, translational medicine, and public health. For example, my current work on the HIV and SARS-CoV-2 viruses attempts to address inequity in global health and medical research, which has historically disregarded important ecological and sociological conditions relevant to populations in tropical and sub-tropical regions across the globe. Studying viral evolution in this context will help us refine drug and vaccine design and delivery and epidemic and pandemic containment in populations marginalized by race, socio-economics, and geo-political representation. More information about me and my research, as well as the many incredible places I have had the opportunity to do field work, can be found on my website.
As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What interests you the most?
I have never seriously considered anything outside of research science, primarily in an academic setting. I am passionate about the hypotheses I am addressing, almost to the point that nothing else matters. I have always been a biologist. Even when I was a child, I spent most of my time outdoors trying to piece together my observations of the natural world. I was innately curious about the environment and how the organisms that lived in it were infinitely and irrevocably connected. Later, in my Ph.D., I realized that I had a talent for creative research questions and project designs and a strong ability to foster a dynamic and large research environment, including multiple mentees. Those activities drive me, so some considered careers outside traditional academic research include lofty notions like forming a research institute—or program within one—or a think tank for public and wildlife health policy, particularly as it relates to One Health research and policy. I have always been fascinated by the life histories of our large and long-lived mammals (including non-human primates, whales, and elephants) and how those life histories present unique challenges to our most basic physiological functions, like reproduction and immunity. We have so many challenges right now with climate change, habitat perturbation, unbalanced ecosystems, and more frequent eruptions of epidemic infectious disease. All of these will worsen unless we turn the tide on human-altered landscapes and live more sustainably. No matter where I go or what I do, health and environment will be an important focus and fixture in my life, as it will be for everyone at some level.
I am a strong writer and public speaker, so I also think about contributing to public knowledge and policy through non-fiction writing and other forms of public engagement. As I age, I seem to be prioritizing my time and efforts toward endeavors where my talent and passion align and where I can contribute most effectively through public service to public good. At my core, however, is an infinitely curious little kid who just wants to know the answers to all the questions in her head.
In addition to your research, how do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?
I want everyone to care about science, no matter who they are and what they do for a living. I am conscious about how my own participation in science, especially how I construct and extend opportunities to others, is likely the most important part of my job. Within academe, I want our environments to be healthy and inclusive and to promote learning and productivity. I have been in academe long enough to witness unfortunate changes in direction and sentiment that are counter-productive to scholarship, including overburdening students and faculty schedules so they have less time for creative thought, innovation, and research. Some of our problems in academe are old and rooted in tradition. Some are new, created by ideas of what it means to be a successful scholar today. I find that we are often moving too fast, more concerned with quantity over quality, and overlooking best practices of assimilating existing information and appropriately interrogating historic hypotheses and theory.
I want to empower people to fully participate in science, starting from their early education through their working years and late life, so they understand the many ways science touches their daily lives and feel capable of making decisions about their environment and health. Many of the problems we face as a global community are science-based and require participation from everyone. More and more, we recognize that the consequences of climate- and human-driven environmental change are disproportional in their distribution, most negatively impacting global communities already disenfranchised. That means that every citizen of every country needs to realize that the decisions they make for their families and communities can have impacts across the globe and in regions without the resources to mitigate human and wildlife suffering, extirpation, and loss.
As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?
I joined the Early Career Leadership Program (ECLP) at GSA to work on the multimedia committee. I enjoy public engagement and talking to scientists about their work, especially when their work differs from my own. With the interdisciplinary nature of my research, it is essential I remain conscious of the bridges between disciplines. The activities of other scientists in other fields are like fuel and lightbulbs to my own science. Many of my best leaps as a scientist were because I exposed myself to new scientists or new ways of doing things, initially having no idea what doing so might mean for my own work.
Selfishly, I was eager to gain skills in all the activities related to the multimedia committee, including the production, editing, and advertising of our podcast, as well as the other development opportunities GSA extends to us. I am still in the learning phase and have loved every minute of it. GSA has been kind, productive, and organized. It has offered me a ton of opportunities so far. I hope that, by the end of my participation in the program, I will have contributed more than I have received in the form of podcasts, writing, and innovative and future-forward ideas for later ECLP cohorts to use during their tenure. One of my priorities during my appointment is to bring as much recognition, support, and protection to early career scientists as I can, particularly women and LGBTQIA+ scientists. I recognized early on that GSA was conscious of its support of early career professionals. I knew that I would have a platform to address the needs of my early career peers, including recognizing innovative scholarship and helping to advance the careers of PhD students, postdocs, and early career faculty.
Previous leadership experience:
I have had lots of opportunities for leadership over the years:
- serving as an undergraduate and graduate student research mentor;
- directing high-school summer STEM camps in the natural and physical sciences;
- serving as an undergraduate and graduate student representative on faculty committees; and
- serving as a faculty member and college-level instructor in the anthropological, biological, environmental, and chemical sciences.
Through endeavors in my community, I have also:
- worked as a project manager in environmental impact and threatened and endangered species assessments;
- supported live-music events through the creation and implementation of private and public concerts and festivals;
- lobbied my state government in service of basic human rights and marriage equality; and
- served as an elected official, equivalent to a city councilwoman, during my undergraduate and early graduate education.