Science Chat with Dr. Alisa Vershinina

June 10, 2024
Interview conducted by Siobhan Keegan, representing Watershed Bio.

Dr. Alisa Vershinina is a Senior Scientist in Bioinformatics at SalioGen Therapeutics. Prior to working in biotech, Dr. Vershinina received a Master’s in Entomology from St. Petersburg State University, Russia and a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of California Santa Cruz. Her research has taken her across many continents, epochs, and species, analyzing genomes from insects to ancient mammals.

Siobhan: Could you tell us about your science background and what you’re working on now?

Alisa: I received my Master’s in Entomology in Russia, where I studied insect genetics. I mainly focused on questions of speciation, chromosomal evolution, and the large-scale evolution of genomic structure, looking at a variety of different species.

I decided to make a big jump, both scientifically and physically, to pursue a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California Santa Cruz. There I worked in Beth Shapiro's lab, studying paleogenomics and population genetics in Pleistocene mammals like extinct equids (e.g. horses and donkeys) and mammoths. Rather than looking at many different species in vast timescales, I focused on changes among populations of single species, examining more nuanced processes of evolution across smaller timeframes.

After a year of postdoctoral research, I transitioned into biotech. My first biotech role was at LifeMine, working on fungal genomics and small molecule drug discovery. From there, I moved into genetic engineering and gene therapy at SalioGen Therapeutics, where I currently work.

Siobhan: Could you share a highlight from your academic career?

Alisa: One of the most interesting things I worked on but unfortunately didn’t have time to publish – although it is accessible in my dissertation online! – was obtaining 12-fold coverage of one of the oldest equid genomes ever discovered. It’s a little over 750,000 years old. That’s incredible coverage for something of that age.

Siobhan: Wow! Was there a lot of travel involved in your paleogenomics work?

Alisa: Generally, it’s the paleontologists who travel to collect samples and send them to dry lab colleagues like myself for analysis. However, there was one summer where I got to be a teaching assistant for a field class in Canada. We took students on a trip across the Canadian Arctic to investigate how climate change impacts Arctic communities, collecting samples along the way.

Siobhan: What motivated you to pursue a career in biology?

Alisa: As a kid, I loved nature and spent a lot of time in the forest with my grandparents. I was fortunate to have natural surroundings where I lived, with opportunities to explore. I wanted to know how organisms and other natural phenomena operated. In school, I also had a great biology teacher who helped me cultivate this curiosity. Russian schools tend to emphasize a more narrow academic focus, so I chose to be in the biology department fairly early on.

Siobhan: What would you tell your younger self, just beginning her career?

Alisa: It takes a lot of effort to stay focused on what you want, and there are definitely going to be times when you're on the fence. There are many trajectories you can take in the biological sciences. Many of my peers wanted to enter medical fields, while I was more interested in academic biology. You need to listen to your heart and pursue what is interesting for you, regardless of what other people think would be more useful.

Siobhan: What has your experience been as a woman in STEM, and what advice would you give to other women entering scientific fields?

Alisa: I have been one of two women on a team of ten scientists, which was definitely challenging. It’s important to acknowledge difficulties that come from your environment and not from a lack of confidence or qualifications. Some things may be hard not because you’re unprepared, but because you’re surrounded by people that don’t share your experiences. Find a woman-driven community or establish one yourself, and stay close to the women that inspire and motivate you.

Siobhan: Who are some of your role models?

Alisa: My PhD advisor Beth Shapiro is a major inspiration, as well as other scientists from my graduate department, like Kristy Kroeker, who does interesting research in coral reef ecology. I also keep up with my colleagues from my graduate cohort, many of whom now work in conservation biology – for example Remy Gatins. I was very fortunate to be in the Evolutionary Biology department at UCSC. In terms of public figures, I admire the work of Elizabeth Bik, who has made a career out of investigating scientific fraud.

Siobhan: What are the most challenging and exciting parts of your current work in biotech?

I was our first in-house bioinformatician. So I'm working on establishing best practices and protocols, integrating work that was done by external contractors with what we’re now building internally. Everything is very fast paced, with constantly changing priorities. But you certainly never get bored! There is always something interesting going on.

Siobhan: What aspects of biotech or science culture in general do you think need to be addressed on a more global level?

Alisa: As someone with a background in paleogenomics and genetics, I find that the voices of Native communities – from which those samples are taken and who have a lot of knowledge to contribute to the field – are often not heard. I think we need to be more proactive about reaching out to indigenous communities and collaborating with them on this kind of work. It can be challenging if you don’t have connections, or if you’re worried about how you’re going to be perceived, but it’s important work.