Jessica Lasky Su


Research Assistant Professor of Psychiatry

M.S. 1999

SUNY Upstate Medical University

Jessica Su attributes the direction of her career in genetic epidemiology and statistical genetics to Purdue Statistics Professor Rebecca Doerge. "Much of my interest in this field came from Rebecca Doerge, who first motivated me to pursue statistical genetics," said Su.

As a researcher in genetic epidemiology, Su studies the genetics that can be attributed to disease. Her research is focused primarily on complex diseases, those that are influenced by multiple genes and the environment.

Su is involved in a number of collaborative projects on ADHD, bipolar disorder, asthma, and obesity. "Usually data are collected on a group of people who meet the definitional criteria for the disease we are studying. Samples are as small as 200 or as large as 10,000," she explained. "First, medical doctors collect clinical information on the patient ranging from their medical history to disease-related symptoms. Blood samples are also taken from which genotype information is extracted. At the end of the day, two files are generated. One has all the genetic information. One has all the clinical information. With the completion of the human genome project, the genetic files we now deal with have as many as 500,000 to 1,000,000 genetic markers for each individual. Sifting through the large amount of genetic data to identify disease regions is not a trivial task. My part in the process is to do just that," said Su. "Recently, I have also been involved in developing statistical methods that can help analyze these datasets more efficiently. Besides complications with large file sizes, other feasibility issues include the large number of statistical tests that are performed with these samples. I have teamed up with other statisticians (Nan Laird, Christoph Lange, and Matthew McQueen) to develop statistical methods that more powerfully handle the multiple comparisons problem our field is now facing," Su explained. Su credits her work at Purdue with giving her the theoretical background that has helped with this recent endeavor. "One thing that I really appreciate retrospectively is the statistical theory that I learned at Purdue."

"A large portion of my time involves data analysis in Linux/UNIX environments," Su said. "That involves using SAS to manage, edit, and analyze data. You absolutely need skills in UNIX or Linux and SAS or R programming in my profession. I use those all the time. Everyday I open up a Linux box and submit batch scripts to a queue, and everyday I analyze data in SAS."

Although Su does not work in a lab, she said, "Without a doubt, getting your hands dirty in practical experience is vital." While pursuing her master’s degree, Su worked as a technician in a molecular biology lab in the Purdue Botany Department. "Because I now collaborate with people who work in a lab, it was helpful to have an experience that got me familiar with the general procedures that take place in genetics laboratories," said Su. "Professor Doerge was the one who suggested that I work in the lab. Throughout my time at Purdue, she also did an excellent job at advising me on what classes would give me a sufficient knowledge base in genetics."

Most of the applied statistics Su learned as an undergraduate and master’s students were related to plants. It was not until her first position after Purdue, as a statistical geneticist at the Indiana University School of Medicine, that she applied statistics to human disease and found the exact direction of her career. "It was through Professor Doerge and Leah Flury, a recent Purdue graduate, that I got my first job after Purdue," she said. After continuing in this area for four years, Su went on to pursue a Doctorate of Science (DSc) in Epidemiology, which she recently received from the Harvard School of Public Health.

To current students, Su advises, "Be patient in finding out where your particular area of interest is. It took me several years to develop a passion about one particular area. Over the course of this time, I didn’t realize how much I had learned until I looked back and reflected on where I was 7 years ago."

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