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PhD candidate finds dogs are perfect companion to understanding human health

Dog genomics research published in Science, covered by New York Times, NPR

Growing up in Frederick, Maryland, Kathleen Morrill had no idea that dogs like her Papillon puppy Tod would contribute to her future career in genomics. Morrill, a PhD candidate in the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, is doing her dissertation on the behavioral genomics of domestic dogs. Her work has already been published on the cover of Science and reported in The New York Times and NPR affiliate KPCC 89.3 FM.

“Dogs are a fantastic model for understanding health,” Morrill said. “They share our homes with us, so they share a common environment and a lot of similar exposures to different things. Studying dogs is kind of our perfect companion for understanding how health problems emerge. We can learn things about cancer, aging, behavior problems, and anxiety and compulsive behavior, all in an animal that we kind of take for granted, who’s by our side every day.”

Morrill is first author on a paper published in Science that suggests that dog breeds are not good predictors of personality and behavior traits. Morrill and her mentor, senior author Elinor Karlsson, PhD, paired genome-wide association mapping technologies with more than 18,000 pet-owner surveys obtained through Darwin’s Ark, an open-source database of owner-reported canine traits and behaviors. Karlsson is associate professor of molecular medicine at UMass Chan and director of the Vertebrate Genomics Group at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

“There are a lot of stories and dogma about dog breeds and what kind of different behaviors they perform. Our project asked owners directly about their dogs. We had thousands and thousands of participants, so we were finally able to ask the question, ‘Is there a relationship between breed and behavior?’ We found that a lot of breed stereotypes aren’t necessarily true and that we can learn a lot more from dogs who are of mixed breed ancestry and how their behavior presents,” Morrill said.

In June, Morrill received the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Mid-Thesis Research. She also received the Diane M. Riccio Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences Travel Award and the International Society of Psychiatric Genetics Early Career Investigator Program Travel Award to support her presentation on the canine model of compulsive disorders at the 2022 World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics.

When she’s not poring over data, Morrill is helping first-year students interpret data and learn coding for the statistical bootcamp. She has a bachelor’s degree in biological chemistry from Bates College, where she studied plant genetics. She studied fruit flies during a neurobiology research internship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory between college and grad school. Rotating through different labs in her first year at UMass Chan allowed Morrill to find a new enthusiasm for computational biology, she said. Post-PhD, Morrill would like to embark on new large-scale genomics initiatives, especially those focused on human mental health.

The Student Spotlight series features UMass Chan Medical School students in the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Tan Chingfen Graduate School of Nursing and T.H. Chan School of Medicine. For more information about UMass Chan Medical School and how to apply, visit the Prospective Students page.

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