Featured Faculty: Timothy York, Ph.D.

Timothy York, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Human and Molecular Genetics and a faculty member of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics (VIPBG) at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). A self-proclaimed “poster child” for VIPBG and the School of Medicine (SOM) as a whole, Dr. York obtained his Ph.D. in human genetics at VCU followed by postdoctoral positions at the Massey Cancer Center and the Department of Psychiatry before being awarded a faculty position in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics in 2006. VCU has afforded Dr. York a unique opportunity to not simply explore his main interests, human genomics and data science, but spearhead the intersection of these two fields at this university. Seemingly disparate interests, Dr. York’s early career as an undergraduate researcher at the Mary Washington College, certificate student at VCU in computer science, and assistant computer network administrator in the SOM and VIPBG helped him to realize that data science supports all scientific fields. As the capability of genomic techniques (and hence the amount of data) grew over the past decade, Dr. York realized that it was crucial to move away from an apprenticeship model of teaching best practices for handling data to formal instruction in data science that capitalizes on advances in modern computational techniques. He was recently appointed as the Director of the VCU Data Science lab committed to supporting rigorous, transparent and reproducible research at VCU.

When not focusing on this new endeavor at VCU, Dr. York studies the genetics of preterm birth. He just finished data collection for the Pregnancy of Race and Genes (PREG) study where 200 women were followed across pregnancy and into the postpartum to understand how maladaptive environments contribute to transcriptional regulation that predict earlier births. His research has shown that African American women are twice as likely to experience preterm birth and this disparity is largely driven by pregnancy-specific environmental exposures, not allelic differences known to exist between ancestry groups. The ongoing focus of his work is to further understand the causal relationship between these exposures and DNA methylation, a chemical modification to the DNA sequence that can impact gene expression.

Where is your favorite place to work?

I can’t work at home because I have three young girls. I like coming in [to VIPBG] because I can focus more and not bring my work home.

What is your favorite 90’s jam?

I only listened to British pop in the 90’s, so New Order and The Smiths.

What advice do you wish that someone had told you earlier in your career?

My New Year’s resolution was to stop multitasking as much as I do and I would recommend this to junior faculty. The more that I take on, the less that I get done. It’s easy to get involved in a lot of [projects] to the point where research becomes unsatisfying. So I’ve tried to limit what I do so that it’s more fulfilling. It’s practical, too, because you’re thinking more deeply [about your research]. I’ve seen how that impacts how I write grants or papers. And when I was a junior faculty member, I would contribute to a lot of projects and I was spread too thin. It was great training but there was a point where I wanted to transition to thinking more deeply about my [research] problems.

What else should we know about you?

Like Dr. Webb, I did my Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellowship here. There is a reason that we stayed. There is a lot of great science going on here – great people, great methods, great projects. There was no reason to leave. It’s a very supportive community at the VIPBG.

Outside of work, Dr. York likes to spend quality time with his family. He and his wife have started a running club at their daughters’ elementary school. He also famously competes in Ultras, which are long distance mountain running competitions.

“It is better to be approximately correct than precisely wrong.” – Carveth Read

I favor this quote because it goes hand-in-hand with the more well known adage, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Perfection in science is impractical because we are always hampered by imperfect measurements and methods. Professor Lindon Eaves, my former advisor, would caution that, “In order for science to be useful we need to first think deeply about a problem and then ask the right questions.” I suppose the practical message is to develop and apply a method to answer a relevant question without doing something stoopid [sic], as Dr. Eaves would also say.

Article by Jessica Bourdon.

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