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Meet the Johnnies: Shannon Hateley (SF07)

August 12, 2019 | By Rebecca Waldron

Shannon Hateley (SF07) is a computational biologist at Ancestry. 

Shannon Hateley (SF07) is a computational biologist and senior staff scientist at Ancestry. Here, she discusses her love of problem-solving, eureka moments, and the courage that studying at St. John’s gave her to pursue a career in the sciences.

Why did you decide to come to St. Johns?

I started off going to College of Santa Fe. My best friend at the time was going to St. John’s. She took me to this party one time and some of the students there were talking about Plato. Everyone knew what they were talking about and they all seemed really interested in the subject. That really excited me, that people could be so academic and so passionate about it. I ended up having some really good conversations. I felt like the students were really serious about what they were studying and I thought if I was going to spend four years of my life [somewhere], I wanted to be somewhere where I could do something that I was serious about and [that] the people around me were serious about. I just fell in love with the school through talking to people, and so over the summer, I decided to switch.

How did you decide to do a PhD program in molecular biology?

There are always a million causes for things like that. You kind of go down your path and then you make a story around your path that makes sense. But my best version of the story is that I had always been really into math and science growing up. I had also always been really creative. Being at St. John’s, where we study the history and growth of human thought throughout time and the progress of discoveries, I just found that really engrossing. I remember—I think it was [in] freshman lab—we were trying to figure out how to do some sort of calculation. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but we were trying to figure out calculations for different chemical reactions. There was one where the calculations just didn’t make sense if you were thinking about a ratio of one hydrogen to one oxygen. But then if you started thinking, ‘Well, what if there are two hydrogens to one oxygen, then maybe all these calculations work out.’ I remember just looking at it realizing that if you changed that one thing, then all the math worked out. That feeling of discovery, that eureka moment, was so exciting to me that I got really hooked on solving scientific problems.

At St. John’s, you really see how research is a creative process. There are a lot of missteps. There’s a lot of creativity involved in formulating scientific ideas. I just got really interested in that. I started thinking, if I grew up in the 1800s, I would want to be a chemist; 1900s, I’d want to be a physicist. So I was thinking about riding this crest of the wave of human discovery. I thought, ‘Where can I be today [that] I’m going to be at this height of learning and discovery?’ And right now, it’s in biology and computer science. If you put in just a bit of extra work, you can discover something new that no one has ever seen before. I wanted to be at that forefront so I could participate in the next part of the story.

I was a senior lab assistant. And then after I graduated from St. John’s, I ran an art gallery for a couple years, but then I ended up getting an internship at the National Center for Genome Resources in Santa Fe. I was a research assistant working on some genomics projects. I think the reason I got the internship was because there was another Johnnie alumnus there, Andrew Farmer. He was one of their rock stars. I think he had thoroughly impressed them, so they were open to having another Johnnie come on. And I just loved it. I had never thought about getting a PhD, but the people I saw there that were doing cool research all had PhDs. They told me I could get one too, if I wanted, and they encouraged me to apply. I wanted to be somewhere that had a very strong civic component in terms of people really caring about society. That had been a thread in my life, but I also think St. John’s influenced that a lot—wanting to be a whole person rather than just someone who does science. I ended up in the molecular and cell biology department, but my advisor was originally from the mathematics department.  Because we tackle these huge concepts and discoveries without a whole lot of background or context at St. John’s, it kind of gives you this courage to do the same kind of thing in grad school.

How did you end up at Ancestry and what kind of work do you do there?

I ended up at Ancestry because I still wanted to do research, but I also like having a direct connection to the public. If I develop something at Ancestry, the customers get to use that right away. It’s really exciting right now in the Bay Area with all the biotech—there’s just so much going on. Another interesting thing about working in direct-to-consumer genetics is that there’s definitely an ethical component. We always have to think about how to best communicate to people that there are no fixed ethnicities and there are no categories of people. A genetic report does not in any way report culture. There’s always a fine line.

Has your experience at St. John’s influenced the way you do research or think about science?

I ask a lot of big-picture questions in my work that I think people coming from a purely scientific background might be less likely to ask. I also think the type of research that interests me is more to do with trying to figure out the nature of things rather than come upon one very concrete question. I think that the types of questions people ask at St. John’s and the types of discussions that are had are really valuable for anything you do afterward. Like seminar discussions—I wish everyone I work with had done four years of seminar. I think that would make meetings a lot more meaningful.

Also, most of the people you come up against in research science haven’t read the older work we read at St. John’s. They don’t really know the foundations of science and they don’t really see all of the different roads that people have gone down to get to these discoveries. I think that is a really interesting vantage point to be doing research from.

I just love St. John’s. I’ve thought about coming back maybe as a tutor, but for now, there’s just so much we need to do in research science—especially with things like climate change and technologies that can help with that. There’s a huge need for that.