Originally from Sweden, Dr. Sara Lindstroem joined the UW Department of Epidemiology in January 2016. Although her work today is focused on genetic epidemiology with a primary emphasis in cancer, her career began in engineering and physics. It was coursework in statistics and an early work experience that shaped Sara’s desire for understanding correlations between genetics and disease.
Your education started in engineering and physics. That’s quite different from epidemiology!
It is very different. I realized that physics wasn’t really for me and that the classes I liked most in the physics program was statistics. I felt like statistics was real math; you could apply it to real problems. So while I finished my degree in physics, I took as many courses as I could in statistics. After I got my degree, I started working as a statistician managing a database at a hospital that was doing a prostate cancer study. After I’d been there for a while, they asked me if I was interested in pursuing a PhD in genetic epidemiology, which I thought was interesting because I had really enjoyed my work there.
You grew up in Sweden?
I did, yes. I grew up in a college town called Umeå. There are 100,000 people there, most of them are students. I grew up there and also went to school there for both my undergrad and PhD.
What brought you to Seattle?
After I got my PhD back in 2007, I went to Boston to do a postdoc. The idea was that if you wanted to pursue a faculty position in Sweden, you have to go abroad for a couple of years. My plan was to get it on my CV and then go back. However, I met my wife in Boston after two years and decided I might stick around for a few more. We ended up staying there for six more years! She used to go to grad school here in Seattle and she always wanted to move back. So we’ve had our eyes on Seattle for quite some time. When the opportunity came, we jumped on it.
Your research is primarily in cancer. What drew you to this area?
Cancer is something that I have in my family; it’s something that is close to my heart. I got an opportunity to work on a prostate cancer study when I was working on my PhD and when I moved to Boston, I was supposed to work with prostate cancer there as well. But after a while they asked if I was interested in breast cancer. Breast cancer is more complex than prostate cancer because we have more known risk factors and there are many different subtypes. It’s a very interesting disease to study. So I started focusing more on breast cancer and breast tissue composition. I’m a genetic epidemiologist, so I’ve always been interested in genetic variants that are associated with a disease.
Can you talk a little about a particular study you’ve worked on?
One of the studies I did when I went to Boston was trying to identify genetic variants that were associated with breast tissue composition. We screened the entire genome for it and found a genetic variant on chromosome 10. No one knew what the variant did, it had never been found before, and no one really knew what to do with our findings. I went to a meeting in Cambridge UK where they showed us unpublished breast cancer data they had collected. As it turned out, the exact same variant we had found associated with breast tissue composition was also associated with breast cancer. When you do these studies, you get 2.5 million variants and it was exactly the same one that showed up. It was truly a eureka moment. All of a sudden we went from no story to a really great story. You have a genetic variant that you inherit that alters your breast tissue composition and as a result, also alters your breast cancer risk. That project really got me interested in trying to understand correlations between different diseases and if it’s due to genetics or something else.
Do you have time for fun outside of work?
We have a 5-month old baby, so she takes a lot of our time. She’s a lot of fun! We also love hiking and backpacking, so every summer for the past several years we’ve come to Seattle to backpack. Seattle is a fantastic place for hiking; you don’t have to do the same hike twice. You can find solitude here in a way that you cannot find on the east coast. With the baby and the recent move, the past couple of months have been mostly spent with her and unpacking boxes. But we’ll get back to some hiking during the summer.