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Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning

Mar 4, 2022

Today on the Unsupervised Learning podcast the focus is on genetics, culture and geopolitics with Muhammad Sohail Raza, a Pakistani genomicist living and working in Beijing, China, whose research focuses on bioinformatic methods and high-altitude adaptations. Razib and Muhammad first discuss how he got interested in biology, and what took him to do his graduate work in the People’s Republic of China. Muhammad talks about his various inspirations, in particular David Reich’s work on historical population genomics, as well as the potential promise of precision medicine in the domain of healthcare. About a decade ago, when his interest in genetics began, Muhammad was particularly focused on the importance of bioinformatics, and he outlines how Chinese academia is very strong in understanding the engineering and methods of data generation in a genomic context, due to China’s position as a sequencing leader. Razib and Muhammad then explore the numerous professional opportunities in China’s coastal megacities, Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzen, and Muhammad recalls his experience with the locals, who were friendly, open and curious. Beijing in particular is quite diverse, with scientists from Europe and America, as well as those from China and other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Razib was skeptical about the Chinese attitude toward a brown-skinned person with a Muslim name, but Muhammad’s experience has been that Chinese of all backgrounds are quite accepting once they realize he has some command of Mandarin (Standard Chinese). Additionally, the world of science is multicultural and cosmopolitan, and when the focus remains on scholarship there are far fewer tensions than might occur in other contexts, like business or politics. Muhammad contrasts his experience in China with how Asian researchers perceive the United States. Because of his Pakistani nationality, he was denied a visa to attend an American conference, while Chinese researchers feel that geopolitical tensions are casting a pall over their collaborations. Though the Chinese opinion of American science remains high, the prospects for future cooperation have been dampened by the new rivalry between China and the US. Finally, Muhammad talks about research in high-altitude genomics and the adaptations of Tibetans in particular. He explains that future directions in this field will have less to do with hypoxia, as opposed to the metabolic adaptations associated with it. Due to the paucity of ancient DNA, most of the analysis is going to be on large cohorts of contemporary Chinese. This means that the Beijing Institute of Genomics, where Muhammad works, will likely require all 40 petabytes of storage available at his research institute at some point.