CHS undergrad collaborates with partners to analyze the genetics of health

Posted on June 12, 2017
Laura Danner sitting at desk

Laura Danner (pictured above), an undergraduate student in the Nutritional Sciences program, is working with professors in the Zilber School of Public Health (ZSPH) and the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). Together, the group hopes to develop personalized nutrition and lifestyle guidance based on genetic factors.

Danner is collaborating with Peter J. Tonellato, PhD, professor of bioinformatics in ZSPH and visiting professor of bioinformatics in MCW, and Sherry Zhang, PhD, assistant professor of medicine in the Human and Molecular Genetics Center at MCW.

The computational work in Tonellato’s lab

Tonellato is Danner’s research advisor and primary investigator in the Laboratory for Public Health Informatics and Genomics (LPHIG). The purpose of the lab is to bring the power of emerging computational technology together with biomedical and public health informatics techniques, tools and methods to create actionable public health information and evidence. A primary focus of Tonellato’s research is to understand the implications of genetic data and knowledge on future public health initiatives and policies.

Zhang’s research on the genetics of obesity

As a scientist in genetics, Zhang has conducted many large-scale studies of human population genetics of obesity and metabolic syndrome, which are two increasing problems for Americans. Currently, Zhang is using the extensive scientific research in this area to create a nutrigenomics company that will analyze genetic samples from customers, and match the individual with the nutritional and lifestyle advice best suited to their genetics, physiology, and preferences.

Collaborating to translate science into useful information

Danner’s role includes research into the nutrition and genetic published findings and to consolidate and format those findings to be used for future research projects. Namely, Danner will help translate scientific findings into actionable nutritional information useful to help individuals eat, exercise and conduct a lifestyle best suited for their individual genetics.

Danner will also collate the findings into a database, create rules concerning how specific genetics are linked to specific desired lifestyle outcomes, conduct analysis of the collected data, and will work with Dr. Zhang to help conduct related marketing and other research for the company.

“It’s very exciting,” Danner said. “I started working on the project just a few weeks ago. My early efforts have been successful and the work is gaining momentum. I intend – and Professor Tonellato and Zhang agree – that I will continue this work throughout my undergraduate career.  I plan to continue working on related research projects in graduate school.”