Tell me about yourself
My name is Christina Bergey, and I joined the Department of Genetics at Rutgers in January 2020. Before that, I grew up in Philadelphia and then went to school at NYU, ultimately doing a PhD there on the genetics of wild baboons in Ethiopia. I then did postdocs at Notre Dame and Penn State on the genetics of mosquitoes and people, respectively, with both projects coincidently in Uganda. Outside of work (and sometimes during work), I enjoy hiking and spending time in nature as an antidote to all the time I have to be in front of a computer.
How did you become interested in science?
My degrees are all in anthropology, which, due to historical quirks, contains researchers doing work on primate biology despite its liberal arts heritage. I only switched to the science half of the discipline when I took a required course. For unknown reasons, primate biology grabbed my interests; I think I appreciated the organismal focus and the comparative evolutionary perspective that is a hallmark of anthropology. At the time, DNA sequencing costs were rapidly falling, and I was lucky to come along at the right time with a useful set of computational skills for genomics.
As a student, did you do undergraduate research?
I did! I walked in and asked for a job and was assigned the un-glamorous task of extracting DNA from monkey feces. It still feels like magic to me that you can reconstruct species' histories going back millions of years or figure out what genes were under selection in past environments. The folks from that lab are still some of my closest friends. One of them suggested a study abroad program in Madagascar, so I took out a loan and went to study wild primates for the first time as an undergrad. I've since been lucky enough to do field research in places like Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda. I'm actually writing this from South Africa en route to the same field research station in Madagascar that I went to at age 19.
What are you researching (in layman’s)
My group is interested in how organisms adapt to their environment, especially humans, non-human primates, and mosquitoes. The people in my lab have broad interests, spanning topics from lemur conservation to male fertility to cyanide detoxification, but we're united in our use of genomics to test evolutionary hypotheses. We're beginning large projects that aim to understand the factors that influence the risk of infectious diseases that disproportionately impact the poor. We're also increasingly interested in the role of climate change and habitat disturbance on infectious disease risk. That's why I'm off to Madagascar to trap malaria mosquitoes: We want to know how climate change is impacting malaria in highland places that used to be super low risk for mosquito-borne diseases. We also work to understand how different populations are susceptible or resistant to infectious diseases because of their past environments. For instance, in Uganda, we work with the Batwa who until recently lived by hunting-and-gathering in the rainforest, so they were exposed to vastly different pathogens compared to their agriculturalist neighbors. We're fortunate to get the chance to work closely with these populations, as well as scientists from the places in tropical Africa where we work.
L to R: Collaborator Kevin Nakato coming out of a house after collecting mosquitos in Uganda; a macaque monkey in Kyoto, Japan