“I am truly ecstatic to be part of the All of Us Research Program,” said Alicia Y. Zhou, Ph.D., chief science officer at Color Health Inc. “This is an incredible resource to be able to give valuable information back to participants and diverse data to scientists. This will definitely accelerate precision discovery.”
Alicia Y. Zhou, Ph.D., was destined to follow in her family’s footsteps to academic research. Growing up on U.S. university campuses, her mother and father both research librarians, she was fascinated with the “science of life.”
Born in China, she shifted between grandparents, aunts, and uncles as a toddler after her parents accepted research fellowships in the United States. At age 4, young Alicia traveled to the United States to reunite with her parents. Her father had only seen her once since he left, on a trip back to China. He brought her a Mickey Mouse toy, which she loved and carried with her to the United States. She remembers recognizing her father when she arrived at the airport and her mother rushing to embrace her.
From a young age, she developed strength and independence, learning to stand up for herself and pursue her dreams. At age 14, on summer break from high school, she researched internship opportunities and secured an internship at a cancer research lab at the University of Chicago, where she learned the intricacies of laboratory experiments.
A little over a decade later, she had completed her undergraduate and advanced degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). It was only then that she began to envision a new career path, away from the academic setting.
In 2015, while pregnant and planning for maternity leave from her postdoctoral fellowship in breast cancer biology at UCSF, she was looking for ways to directly affect public health.
“Now that I look back, I realize I needed to translate science into impact—or else it felt hollow for me,” Dr. Zhou said. “I really think of academia as the place where the pursuit and love of knowledge is the North Star.”
She read a news article about a new health technology startup called Color, based in California, working to change the landscape of breast cancer by making genetic testing more affordable and accessible. The test would show whether women
carried a gene variant that increased their breast cancer risk. Dr. Zhou was especially impressed that the company partnered with internationally renowned geneticist Mary-Claire King, Ph.D., recognized for discovering BRCA1, the breast cancer gene. To Dr. Zhou, this signaled the new company’s trust in science.
Six weeks after giving birth to baby Davi, Dr. Zhou was rocking him in his stroller to get him to nap. As soon as he was quiet, she typed a cover letter to Color’s chief executive officer, asking whether there was an interest in hiring her as a breast cancer scientist. Within six weeks, she began working part-time at the company.
“I think I could only have made that rash decision to take a leap of faith and change careers during maternity leave. I’m not sure I was in control of all my faculties,” she said, laughing.
Now, seven years later, she is the chief science officer at Color, leading Color's research, scientific, and medical affairs teams. In this role, she is helping to grow and shape the company’s partnership with All of Us through the program’s genetic counseling resource.
“It was the best decision I made,” Dr. Zhou said. “My work in the lab would have taken years to have clinical impact. I could see an immediate impact in my role at Color.”
Strength and Independence
Dr. Zhou drew strength and confidence to forge an independent path, in part, from her dedication to Taekwondo, a form of martial arts originating in Korea. Drawing on her childhood love of the TV show Power Rangers, she began practicing Taekwondo at MIT. She joined MIT’s Taekwondo Club and, four years later, earned her black belt and won a bronze medal in the U.S. Collegiate Taekwondo Championships.
The experience bolstered her confidence in a competitive scholarly environment.
“Taekwondo is what grounded me in my academic life,” said Dr. Zhou in a 2018 spotlight from NIH. “It’s important to ground yourself in something that you’re passionate about. That something may be intellectual, such as reading books or playing chess, or something physical.”
Knowledge is Power: Returning Personalized Genetic Health Information
Partnering with All of Us to provide participants with valuable health information is empowering, Dr. Zhou said. She is passionate about the importance of learning one’s own health history.
“You don’t have to be a passenger in your health care journey—you can be a driver,” said Dr. Zhou.
Now at age 37, Dr. Zhou has earned a doctorate degree, achieved a senior leadership position at Color, won a bronze medal in Taekwondo, and is fluent in multiple languages, including Mandarin, English, Spanish, and French.
This winter, All of Us will begin offering genetic health-related reports to eligible participants. These reports will include information about whether participants may have an increased risk for specific health conditions and how their body might process certain medications. Color will be one of the partners involved with ensuring responsible return of results, including genetic counseling, to help participants understand the information.
“A decade ago, we didn’t have this technology,” she added. “Now we do. This gives you knowledge to make informed decisions.”
The new reports will build on All of Us’ efforts to return valuable information to participants who choose to receive it. All of Us first started returning results on genetic ancestry and traits to participants in December 2020. So far, the program has offered genetic ancestry and traits results to more than 175,000 participants and continues to return about 6,000 results each month. The new results on hereditary disease risk and drug–gene interactions can give participants more insights, which may inform follow-up conversations with their health care providers.
“As parents and partners, we spend a lot of time taking care of our families,” Dr. Zhou said. “Getting knowledge about our genetic history and how it affects disease risk helps us take care of ourselves and our families.”
All of Us provides a dataset for researchers that is one of the largest and most diverse of its kind. It includes many different types of data from participants, most notably, whole genome sequencing, which provides information about almost all of an individual’s genetic makeup. This broad diversity of data holds the potential to transform health research, which has historically excluded many groups of people, and can help lead to personalized prevention and treatments .
“I am truly ecstatic to be part of this program,” Dr. Zhou said. “This is an incredible resource to be able to give valuable information back to participants and diverse data to scientists. This will definitely accelerate precision discovery.”