National Geographic Emerging Explorer Keolu Fox Uncovers the Hidden Treasures of Human Adaptation

Keolu Fox. TED2016 Fellows. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

Geneticist Keolu Fox is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.

Keolu grew up in Hawaii, immersed in the strong cultural traditions and worldview of his native Hawaiian mother. His father grew up all over Israel and North Africa, and is of general European heritage, and had what Keolu describes as an “untraditional education.” He passed on that world-wide perspective and exposed the family to a lot of broad ideas early on. Those ideas took an interesting shape as Keolu studied archaeology and genome sciences, and began to formulate a new way of looking at human genetics.

Indigenous people, he realized, hold incredible stories of human adaptation to every environment and social situation on Earth. By empowering them to be more involved in genetic research and analysis, he’s hoping to start a new chapter in our understanding of all the richness encoded in human DNA. And ultimately to put it to use for the better health and livelihood of everyone.

What is it that you hope to learn from studying the genomics of native people?

It’s not specifically about native people in America or Yakut people in Siberia. While these are all fascinating populations of people, the thing that makes them fascinating for me is natural selection. There’s a treasure trove of information in their DNA that could benefit all of humanity—and it’s the responsibility of scientific investigators to ensure that “exploration” of indigenous people’s genomes benefits that community as well, financially or otherwise.

We should be asking what makes people, human beings, extraordinary? What makes these people special? Why are these people adapted to high elevations? There are people from Greenland that have had this specific diet of marine mammals, high fat as well as omega 3. Why are we not seeing cardiovascular disease in that population?

Why do the Sami people of Finland have protective genetic variation against heart disease? Whatever happens in terms of natural selection that results in that population having this protection could yield treatment for all humanity.

Meanwhile the rest of the field is functioning in a world where 95 percent of clinical trials are in white people. When you’re looking at the percentages of genomes that have been sequenced, they’re not sequencing what I would call the most interesting populations. Its just not happening. But there are real limitations for why it’s not happening.

Part of it is due to the communities we work with, and when you get a feeling for that you understand why that is.

Stacks of “flow cells” into which samples will be pumped so that the chemical processes that result in genetic sequencing can occur. Photo by Keolu Fox

So does it help that you have recent indigenous heritage of your own?

You are your culture, and you are your experiences. So if you’re trying to gain the trust of communities and you know the music they’re listening to, you can move the right way, you look the right way that certainly helps. You can’t look like a scientist, right? You have to be like a human being. You can’t be your classic, traditional western lab-coat-wearing, glasses-wearing scientist. This is a different animal.

So there are very few people that have that skillset. It doesn’t mean I’m the best scientist in genomics, certainly not. And it doesn’t mean I’m the most authentic native but I happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Is there a way that this shift can happen more broadly?

You have elite educational institutions that are educating indigenous people and you can pass the torch that way. That’s what enables capacity building. Because then we go into our communities and we think about things in novel ways. We don’t think about science the same way because we’re culturally different. The way we approach science is different.

Science is a cultural thing. As much as we like to imagine it as objective, it’s like a musical idea. The same central note patterns will take on entirely new colors and dimensions  when being explored by a different culture. Maybe that perspective is becoming more common.

I think we’ve known that for a long time. This indoctrination-by-academy way of approaching science has been effective, but what is it really yielding? It’s certainly not yielding innovation that is powerful for indigenous people. it doesn’t enable us to recombine indigenous and western knowledge in novel approaches, solutions, treatments, etc.

As an example, the biggest thing that doctors should do is make people feel comfortable. Why do you need to look at the top of a chart to know your patient’s name?

So to me, that’s a huge problem that science needs to overcome. But you are looking at the next generation of people that are going to occupy those spaces. We have met all the qualifications.

Keolu Fox. Photo by Ryan Lash/TED

Is it difficult to move comfortably in both the western science and indigenous worlds?

One thing that’s important here is how connected we are with social media and all that. Did you follow what happened in Hawaii with the whole construction of this giant telescope on Mauna Kea? It was so interesting. For me, obviously I’m a laboratory scientist, but if it’s at the cost of our community, and it’s at the cost of our ‘aina [land], then I don’t think that we should make decisions like that. It’s a conservation sort of question. These are negotiations, and I’m not an astrophysicist, but I have to step up on behalf of my community and get flown into this stuff.

The only thing I know how to do is speak from my heart. Keep it real.

When you think of yourself at work, what do you picture?

It’s variable. One project will involve shipping resources, negotiating, engaging communities that I haven’t met before. Making sure that we’re being respectful of indigenous people’s values and their culture. And then there’s the hardcore science aspect of actually collecting information, making sure people understand what we do. The field stuff is always kind of unpredictable, but probably the most fun thing, I would say.

And then I work on other things where it’s just being at work, conducting experiments—and that’s just moving clear fluids around and like bro, that’s not that exciting. It is exciting when you get results and there’s this sort of a-ha moment were you’re searching for something and you confirm your hypothesis. That’s a very western approach. It’s very cool. And then you have the sort of computational aspect. The loads of frustrating time spent writing code that works. and then you have these miracle moments when it does work. Hopefully I can hire people to do that for me in the future. There are students coming up.

And what is that lab work actually like?

I have a bunch of projects that I’m either collaborator on or I’m the primary. One of them is leprosy based. Another we’re using genome editing to actually take variation that’s been discovered in diverse populations and sort of copy and replace that into cell lines and then observe its function.

Let’s say we find a genetic variant, and we think it’s involved in influencing something important and it’s only found in Papua New Guinea or something. Well you can take that and do knock-in variations in human or mouse cells.

Ultimately we want to sequence interesting people—outliers—because they have interesting genomes. And they will allow us to discover interesting things that have a bearing on the way that we understand biology.

How are new technologies helping you with this mission?

Mobile genome sequencing. A lot of times in indigenous communities what we have is what people sometimes call “helicopter genomics” or “vampire genomics.” Scientists come, get their data, go back to the lab, make discoveries, make tenure track, get in that new tax bracket, get the new BMW, put their kid in private school, and the cycle continues.

So for me it’s really important to de-black-box the technology to create transparency about what’s going on. With mobile genome sequencing, you can actually bring the hardware to a community and with cloud computation you can actually perform your massively parallel sequence alignment and adaptation on-site, where you want, as long as you can acquire access to the internet (or sometimes you won’t even need that to happen).

It’s a game changer. It really is a game changer. And it think it’s going to have a profound bearing on the democratization of genome sequencing and genomic technologies.


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