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Gathering data on a geneticist

ASU alum and new faculty member Krystal Tsosie says continuing the work of her ancestors gives her strength

Woman's portrait in front of Navajo rug
June 29, 2023

 Editor's note: New Faces on Campus is a new monthly feature by ASU News showcasing faculty members who have been hired in the 2022–23 academic year.

Krystal Tsosie is a historical figure of sorts.

She is Arizona State University’s first Indigenous geneticist in human biology and is one of the top quoted professors by the media at the university, receiving coverage by outlets as The New York Times, PBS NOVA, Washington Post, NPR, The Atlantic, Forbes and The Boston Globe, among others. 

Tsosie even has a server at the University of California Santa Barbara Bren School named after her.

Her current research at ASU centers on ethical engagement with Indigenous communities to ensure Indigenous peoples equitably benefit from precision health and genomic medicine. 

In addition to being a scientist, Tsosie is community advocate, a mentor, a first-generation scholar and first in her family to receive a PhD in science. That’s a lot to brag about, but that’s never been her style. Continuing the work of her ancestors is where Tsosie gets her inner strength.

“The humility and acknowledgement that I am building on the expertise of previous generations is incredibly important to keep grounded in my work as an Indigenous scientist,” said Tsosie, who is an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. “These are not things that I take lightly as a scientist-advocate for my community. In truth, I do not think I 'ended up' in academia but rather that academia landed on us Indigenous peoples.”

Tsosie landed back at ASU on Jan. 1, 2023, after graduating from the university with two degrees.

She spoke with ASU News about her background, academic journey and her two pets — Pavlov and Schrödinger.

Question: Can you tell us a bit about your background — where you’re from and how you ended up in academia?

Answer: Yá’át’ééh. Shí éí Kinłichii’nii nishłį́ dóó Naakai diné’e bashishchiin. Tódichii’nii dashicheii dóó Tłizi’łaní dashinalí. Shí éí Dr. Krystal Tsosie yinishyé. (Translation: I am Red House clan, born for the Mexican Peoples clan. My maternal grandfather’s clan is Bitterwater and my paternal grandfather’s clan is Many Goats. My name is Dr. Krystal Tsosie.)

I am Diné, an Indigenous citizen of the Navajo Nation. The maternal side of my family comes from Shonto, Arizona, and the paternal side of my family comes from Leupp, Arizona. My father, who recently retired after working for the Phoenix Indian Medical Center after 42 years of service as a power plant operator, made the decision to move our family to the west side of Phoenix, where I spent about 70% of my childhood. I am grateful to my parents, who are among the smartest people I know, and for my ancestors, who were among the first scientists along with many of the world’s Indigenous peoples.

Q: What is your area of research or academic focus? What are you most excited about regarding your research?

A: I have training in population genetics and biostatistics with intersections in ethics and public health. I also have other expertise in community-engaged research and qualitative methods, which are important and essential for co-producing research with Indigenous peoples. Too often in data science and genetics, we see people as lines or rows in a de-identified dataset. In truth, there are a lot of factors as it relates to the study of health disparities that impact Indigenous peoples, such as colonial changes to our ways of living as imbedded in structural racism and inequities in our health, that are missing from analyses when scientists only focus on DNA and what can be found in electronic medical records.

Part of what excites me is that I can work directly with communities and ask tribal community members how — or if — they want to see research in their communities conducted because they — and not outsiders — know firsthand what kinds of research questions are most useful to them.

Indigenous peoples are often presented with dilemma: How can they participate in genetics research in a way that is truly responsive and respectful of their concerns and interests in research without giving up completely their rights to data collected from their members? I am extremely excited to also explore, from the policy and advocacy side, technology solutions rooted in machine learning and artificial intelligence to build data systems that center Indigenous peoples as the decision-making authority as it relates to their own data. To me, this is a great synergy of health equity and justice-centered approaches to science and genetics that is truly groundbreaking.

Q: How do you want to see this field advance to the betterment of society?

A: I entered the field of human genetics to ensure that, if genetics is going to be pursued with Indigenous people, that it benefits Indigenous peoples first and foremost. The history of "Western" science is typified by a trend of using Indigenous peoples’ data and DNA for the benefit of other people, e.g., for academics to pursue publications and research grants to industry using Indigenous peoples’ medicinal knowledges to claim drug patents.

If we are going to talk about truly building sustainable and equitable science-driven solutions, then we also need to make apparent the power dynamics that exist in science and make moves towards justice. Indigenous peoples’ concerns have often been ignored and erased in academia, and I want to make sure that we build technologies that center Indigenous communities and their benefit. If other dimensions of society benefit, in a way that in non-extractive and non-exploitative of Indigenous peoples’ experiences and data, then I would consider that to be an excellent byproduct of my work.

Q: What is something you wish more people realized about what your research?­­

A: Science, as much as we like to idealize, does not occur in a vacuum. Humans impart a lot of decision-making authority and agency in deciding what types of studies to fund, who gets included or excluded in research, and which researchers and institutions obtain that funding or not. A lot of funding decisions are made at the congressional level, too, and are subject to political forces that we may not even see. Hence, at least in the disciplines I work in, there is subjectivity in science and how it is conducted.

Raising awareness to these power dynamics and asking for change is not “anti-science” nor acting against the perceived “objectivity” of science. I, and scientists of color, should be able to act as advocates for our communities while also advancing science — the two acts are not antithetical. I really hope that upcoming Indigenous and scholars of color can see themselves as both advocates and scientists in STEM and data science fields without feeling forced to choose one or the other. I hope to be that mentor for the next generations after me, and that is a great positive driving force forward.

Q: What brought you to ASU, and what do you like about the university?

A: I am gratefully coming back to ASU. I completed my undergraduate (BS, microbiology) and first master’s degree (MA, applied ethics) here in the School of Life Sciences. I love the fact that ASU is the largest public institution with the highest percentage of Indigenous students and the largest Indigenous faculty size. I also appreciate the American Indian Student Support Services, which offers an unparalleled sense of community, especially for an institution this size.

While I appreciate my PhD-granting institution and mentors, returning to ASU is like returning home. My current lab — I love saying “my lab” — is around the corner from my old graduate TA office. My career journey feels full circle. I am back home with my family in Arizona, and I am back in my academic home.

Q: What specifically would you like to accomplish while at your college/school/department?

A: ASU and all state public universities have a significant responsibility to act in service to the Tribal Nations of Arizona, especially as it relates to the ethical and equitable pursuit of any data science, health or STEM research, or education goal. I am truly excited to be a part of a cohort of Indigenous scholars in the tradition of the Indigenous research-educators before me and ahead of me. I think we are entering into an exciting and much-anticipated stage of Indigenous science and Indigenous data science in academia, and I am so glad to be a part of a movement that is so incredibly meaningful. In addition to being the Indigenous mentor that I hope my current and future students deserve, I want to re-Indigenize genomics and data science commensurate with the wisdom and expertise of my predecessors and ancestors. Exciting news is upcoming from the Tsosie Lab for Indigenous Genomic Data Equity and Justice.

Q: What’s something you do for fun or something only your closest friends know about you?

A: As members of our beloved family, we have Pavlov (dog, black Labrador) and Schrödinger (cat, grey shorthair). Pavlov responds incredibly well to food, treats and doorbells while Schrödinger loves hiding in boxes.

Top photo: Krystal Tsosie, an assistant professor and Arizona State University alumna, is an Indigenous geneticist and bioethicist in the School of Life Sciences. She is a member of the Navajo Nation. Tsosie is photographed in her office at the Tsosie Lab for Indigenous Genomic Equity and Justice in the Life Sciences B Wing on the Tempe campus on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. When Tsosie was young, she asked her grandmother to weave a rug to hang in her future office to honor her pursuit of a doctorate, which she did. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News.

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