New Faculty
Sohini Ramachandran Assistant Professor of Biology
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

Sohini Ramachandran
Assistant Professor of Biology
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

By Anne Coyle  |  September 1, 2010  |  Email to a friend

What genetic data can tell us about human history is a precocious question for any teenager, but for Sohini Ramachandran, it became the start of her life’s work.

Ramachandran posed this question to Marcus Feldman, an evolutionary biologist at Stanford University, who had taught her sister as an undergraduate. Working with Feldman, Ramachandran undertook an analysis of DNA variations of Arabidopsis thaliana, a common global plant with a small genome that is a model system in plant biology.

Ramachandran’s analysis of Old World and New World Arabidopsis DNA placed the plant in the Americas about 30,000 years ago, around the time that scientists believe humans first came to the New World. Ramachandran’s work won her fourth place in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, the youngest winner for that year.

Ramachandran, 28, graduated with a degree in mathematical and computational sciences from Stanford, where she also earned her doctorate in population genetics, with Feldman serving as her adviser.

She describes her undergraduate and graduate school studies as allowing her to “use mathematical and statistical tools to answer biological problems through numerical summaries of genetic sequences, for example numbers of repeated bases or proportions of differences.”

As she began graduate school, the Human Genome Project was completed, which led to her interest and involvement with the Human Genome Diversity Project.

She began studying genomic patterns of variation in humans, including the human diaspora out of Africa 100,000 years ago and genetic variation and population changes among Native Americans. Her current research includes discovering why children of Hispanic descent have a higher relapse rate for leukemia than those with Caucasian or African-American backgrounds.

She is drawn to population genetics and human evolution because they are “interdisciplinary fields, with research being performed by mathematicians, statisticians, biologists, linguists, anthropologists and archaeologists. These different approaches make teaching evolutionary biology at once challenging and exhilarating.”

Ramachandran is excited to join Brown as an assistant professor of biology in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“It is sometimes hard for us to imagine observing human evolution,” said Ramachandran. “To be able to calibrate results with historical events, such as the peopling of continents and transitioning from herding to farming, will give students an incredible appreciation for evolution.”

She moves to Providence with her husband, Jeremy Mumford, who will become a visiting assistant professor of history at Brown.

A Californian through and through, Ramachandran also fell in love with New England during her postdoctoral work at Harvard, and she looks forward to exploring Providence and the Brown community. She is particularly interested in Providence’s art scene and other cultural landmarks.