In the first of a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years since the birth of Gregor Mendel, Lavinia Paternoster shares how learning about genetics at school shaped her future career – and introduces us to a cat called Mendel
For as long as I can remember I’ve loved spotting patterns, spending hours as a child playing logic puzzles and, more recently, Sudoku. I love how just a few simple rules can be applied to break the code of seemingly complex patterns. So when I was introduced to Mendel’s pea experiments during my A-levels it was like I got to use my nerdy love of puzzles in the classroom. Compared to how hard I found languages and chemistry, I couldn’t believe that solving these little crosses to determine the genetic inheritance of pea traits counted as work. I had a very supportive biology teacher who nurtured my passion by sending me home with a jar of fruit flies over the Easter holidays to perform my own inheritance crosses (more in homage to Morgan’s drosophila crosses, but quicker and requiring less horticultural skills than growing pea plants). I was hooked and quickly signed up to study genetics at university.
Today I still love the simplicity in the way that the laws of genetic inheritance work to influence even the most complex of human traits. Now working on human traits such as eczema, BMI and even how a disease progresses over time, most of my work involves the simplest of statistical tests (performed millions of times, in an approach called genome-wide association studies) to identify which variants in our genomes influence these important outcomes.
I often think about my earliest introduction to genetic inheritance and how lucky I was to find my imagination captured by those beautifully simple genetic crosses performed by Mendel. Naming my own cat in his honour, I often find myself chatting to a random passers by outside our house about Mendel and his pea experiments. Whilst glad I share some of Mendel’s (the man not the cat) love of genetic inheritance, I definitely do not also share his talent in the greenhouse, struggling to keep the most low maintenance of plants alive. But I somewhat blame Mendel’s love of digging (the cat, not the man, this time)!
- To celebrate Mendel’s 200th birthday we are holding a two-day conference, online and in-person in Bristol on 20-21 July. For more information and to sign up, see our Mendel at 200 pages and follow #Mendel200 on social media for Mendel activities around the world.