What can our readers expect from your new book My Beautiful Genome?
What you get is both a very personal chronicle – my meandering journey to understanding both my ancestry, my health situation and my not-always-easy psyche – and a humorous exposé of the strange world of consumer genetics. It is NOT a technical treatise, but as one reviewer remarked – ‘a page-turner that sometimes feels like an Ian Rankin novel.’
Why did you decide to write about such a controversial topic?
Precisely because it is controversial! Personal genomics is going to be as transformative as computer technology – just much more interesting. You and I and everybody who wants can get our hands on genetic information and in the end, genetic information is all about understanding ourselves better.
What was most surprising to you when writing this book?
I was surprised at how fast and how much I got caught up in genetics. In no time I found myself taking hold of the data provided by test companies and using it to gain even more knowledge of my personal genetics from the free services that are sprouting on the Internet. Driven by fascination of the DNA code carried in my own cells, I quickly found myself delving into how genes actually work in our bodies and brains. At times it felt like being sucked into a new exciting world that grew bigger and bigger the more I looked.
What did you learn from writing this book?
I received quite a bit of insight into my personal risk for diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to a variety of cancers. But much more interesting was the insight into the genetics that affect our psychology and personality. Having had several bouts of depression myself, I delved into the genetics of both depression and stress sensitivity and discovered that I am heavily disposed to depression. This understanding has helped me not to only accept my mood swings but also to cope with them much better.
Where do you see society in future following the advancements in genomics?
I have no doubts that personal genetic information will be part of most aspects of health care and in the next 10-15 years most of us will have our entire genome sequenced and mapped as a matter of routine. The coming generations will grow up bio-literate the way that current generations are computer-literate. They will handle genetic data as just another kind of digital information.
How long have you had an interest in this subject?
As a trained biologist, I’ve been interested in genetics for many years but it was only after consumer led genomics burst onto the scene in 2008 that I really got fascinated and knew that I wanted to share my fascination.
When did you know you were destined to have a career in neurobiology?
It was my second year in high school. We were introduced to the nervous system and the brain and I was sold. Before that, I had had vague thoughts of becoming a psychiatrist but getting into the intricacies of the brain I understood that if we want to understand ourselves and the human mind, we need to study the 3 pounds of wet tissue residing between our ears.
What future projects do you have lined up? Any more books?
I am currently working on a documentary about the personal genetics revolution and a TV series about depression and our quest for happiness. Whether I’ll write any more books are in the future I don’t know.
Interview by Lucy Walton