In this edition of BMB's Alumni Spotlight, we feature Frank Wendt
Frank graduated from Penn State in 2013 earned his B.S. degree in Forensic Science (Biology Concentration). While a student at Penn State, he developed field-ready instrumentation for rapid DNA analysis of forensically relevant substrates. As a freshman and sophomore, Frank studied the microbial ecology of Antarctic permafrost with Dr. Corien Bakermans at the Penn State Altoona Campus. After transferring to the University Park Campus for his junior, senior, and into his fifth year, he conducted research with Dr. Mitchell Holland.
After graduating, he pursued his graduate studies under the mentorship of Dr. Bruce Budowle in the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Texas. His graduate work focused on developing pathway-driven machine learning predictive models of tramadol response using massively parallel sequencing data.
Frank joined the Polimanti laboratory at Yale School of Medicine in September 2018, where he currently serves as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry’s Division of Human Genetics. He also serves as a Genetic Epidemiologist and Affiliate for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs CT Healthcare System.
Frank’s research employs genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and in silico analyses to make inferences about the cause and consequence of shared genetic loci associated with psychiatry, mental health, behavior, and cognition. His work at Yale is quite diverse including large-scale studies of how evolution impacts the persistence of psychiatric risk alleles, the pervasive effects of cognition on detection of risk alleles for psychiatric disorders, and estimating causal relationships between psychiatric disorders and related phenotypes.
You can keep up with Frank by following him on Twitter at @frankwendt10, Instagram at @frw5010, or his professional webpages at https://www.frankwendt.com and https://medicine.yale.edu/profile/frank_wendt/.
Let’s chat with Frank, talk about his experiences while at Penn State, and catch up with what he’s been up to.
What do you do in the Polimanti laboratory at Yale School of Medicine, and with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs CT Healthcare System.
Contrary to human disease with a known gene (e.g., cystic fibrosis), the genetic predisposition for many human traits (cognition, mental health, behavior, etc.) is considered 'complex' such that variation across the human genome confers small portions of liability to a trait. I use sophisticated computational methods and extremely large sample sizes (typically more than 1 million participants) to study the additive effects of these small effect risk positions of the genome to make discoveries about the evolutionary origin of mental health, shared liability across traits, and potentially modifiable environmental risk variables to mitigate risk for disease.
What was it that made you want to come to Penn State, and BMB, to pursue your education?
The Forensic Science Program offered world-renowned training in a small and diverse setting. I had the opportunity to learn basic science concepts and apply them to pressing global issues.
How do you feel Penn State, and BMB, prepared you for your current position or career?
My transition from Penn State to a PhD program was seamless in part because of the essay-style and short answer examination format within the forensic science program. I felt very at home with the rigor and demands of graduate school and quickly excelled among my peers. With respect to my current role at Yale, Penn State prepared me to think independently and develop a sense of self-motivation. I was given a lot of responsibility at Penn State and that freedom to make my own decisions and remain accountable to those decisions has molded me in profound ways for a career in academic research.
Share at least one interesting/fun fact about yourself.
I am a 3rd degree black belt in a traditional Okinawan style of karate.
What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
For mental and physical health I really enjoy outdoor activities like kayaking, camping, hiking, and spending time at the beach - most of which is done alongside my dog Ranger. I am passionate about LGBTQ+ STEM outreach and mentorship and have active mentoring relationships with undergraduates and graduate students all over the world.
Advice from Frank to future generations of scientists:
Leslie Knope once said "Now, go find your team and get to work." By joining the Penn State community you've chosen your team. Now it's time to put in the work. I implore everyone to use your time at PSU to ask hard questions and solve even harder problems. Most importantly: learn to enjoy who you are and who you are becoming while accomplishing all of your academic obligations.