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Meet a Loyola graduate, human genome scientist, and one of TIME Magazine’s “Most Influential People of 2022”

By Molly Robey, Loyola Uviversity

Photo courtesy of the National Human Genome Research Institute

Adam Phillippy, ’02, senior investigator at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), National Institutes of Health (NIH), was recently named to TIME Magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People of 2022,” for his research related to human genome sequencing.

Phillippy, who earned his B.S. in Computer Science from Loyola in 2002, first started researching genomics at the University in 2000. While studying at Loyola, Phillippy was a research assistant, involved in intramural sports, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an honor society at Loyola, Upsilon Pi Epsilon, the international computer science honor society, and a Hauber Summer Research Fellow who completed research with Arthur Delcher, Ph.D., professor emeritus of computer science. After he graduated from Loyola, Phillippy went on to earn his master’s and doctorate in computer science from the University of Maryland, College Park.

As the head of the Genome Informatics Section and a senior investigator in the Computational and Statistical Genomics Branch at NHGRI, Phillippy works to intertwine the fields of computer science and genomics. When Phillippy joined NHGRI in 2015, he co-founded the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) consortium with ambitions of finishing the human reference genome. In April, his team of genome scientists announced that they had completed the final 200 million bases of the human genomic sequence, leading to their inclusion in TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” list.

Phillippy shares more about the recognition in a Q&A:

What can you tell us about the research that contributed to your TIME Magazine recognition?

You can think of the human genome as an instruction manual for building a person, and it contains approximately three billion letters. To this day we can only read small pieces of it at a time that we must stitch together again like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

When I first started doing genomics research at Loyola in 2000, the initial Human Genome Project was just wrapping up, and the excitement around this ambitious project is what drew me to the field. However, due to technological limitations of the time, only about 92% of the genome was finished by 2003. In the last decade, new technologies have emerged and have finally made it possible to finish the last 8% of the puzzle earlier this year.

Speaking of your research at Loyola, what was it like working with Dr. Delcher?

Dr. Delcher introduced me to research, which I had never been exposed to before. Seeing that I could apply my computational skills to important problems in genomics was very motivating, and I've been doing it ever since. After doing a Hauber Fellowship with Dr. Delcher, he recommended me for an internship at the Institute for Genomics Research in Rockville, Maryland. That institute then hired me full-time after I graduated, launching my career in genomics. Dr. Delcher and I keep in touch, and I am incredibly grateful for his mentorship early in my career. I try to mentor a couple of summer students ever year to pay it forward.

What does your Loyola education mean to you?

Looking back, it’s clear that I benefited tremendously from a core curriculum that included writing and other humanities courses because most of my work now involves critical reading, writing, and mentoring.

Even more important was the amazing mentorship I received from professors like Dr. Delcher and Dr. Roberta Sabin, professor emerita of computer science, who introduced me to the field of computer science and really nurtured my success.

Can you share how you found out about making it on TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People of 2022 list?

I had no idea I was being considered, and it came as a complete surprise. The first thing I did was run out of my office to tell my family the news. I was happy to finally impress my kids, because I'm on the same list as their favorite movie stars, like Zendaya, and it's great to see scientific progress honored by the popular press.

What’s next for you?

My group is continuing to develop methods that will enable the routine sequencing of complete genomes as part of standard clinical care. The hope is that this understanding will enable better healthcare that is tailored for each individual person. For example, predicting disease susceptibility or prescribing effective medicines based on a person's unique genome.

This research and recognition represent truly a team effort and the product of a consortium that I co-founded with Dr. Karen Miga in 2018. I am incredibly honored to have worked with an incredible team of more than 100 scientists from around the world, including my amazing team of young scientists at the NIH.

Pictured above: Phillippy and Delcher in 2002 on Loyola’s Evergreen campus.

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