HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – It’s an honor only 100 people get every year, a spot on TIME’s most influential people list. This year, a scientist from Huntsville earned that honor because of her work on the Human Genome Project.
Karen Miga is a Buckhorn High School graduate. She told News 19 that her teachers and experiences throughout high school in the Rocket City shaped her into the researcher and scientist she is today.
After high school, Karen got her Bachelor’s of Science degree at The University of Tennessee before heading to Cleveland, Ohio and getting a Master’s Degree in Genetics at Case Western University. Afterward, she headed to Duke University and obtained her Ph.D. in Evolutionary Genetics.
Now, Karen is an Assistant Professor at The University of California, Santa Cruz teaching Biomolecular Engineering. But, TIME is recognizing Karen for her work on the Human Genome Project.
The human genome was first mapped in 2001, but according to scientists, it was not entirely accurate nor complete. So, Karen helped lead a team of international scientists, known as the Telomere-to-Telomere Consortium, or T2T, to complete the first gapless sequence of the human genome.
“I started my career when the human genome was first announced and it was clear to me at the time there were large and persistent gaps that the rest world, except for some in the scientific community, were largely ignoring,” Karen told News 19.
So, before she became a co-founder of the T2T consortium she was already building a career studying the human genome sequence gaps. Through her studies, she knew there was a lot more to explore.
“When I finally reached a point where I knew technology could close some of these regions, that’s when I was able to team up with Adam Phillipe who is the other co-founder and is involved with the computational putting together really difficult parts of the genome,” Karen explained. “So, it’s this balanced expertise of knowing about these sequences, studying them, then the computational process.”
Karen credits a lot of her excitement for science with growing up in the Rocket City. “Huntsville has always been this champion for research,” she told News 19. “There’s always been a tremendous amount of PhDs and folks who are rocket scientists around and there is an appreciation for science.”
Karen joins many influential names on the list including President Biden, Ketanji Brown Jackson who was confirmed to fill retiring Justice Stephen Breyer’s seat, and singer Adele, among many others. She told News 19 TIME’s willingness to diversify who they consider “influential” is imperative for the science industry.
“I think they’ve been consistently putting science on the same platform with these important milestones met politically, as well as artists and folks who are making a difference with law in our legal system and Supreme Court Justices,” Karen explained.
She also believes the COVID-19 pandemic opened people’s eyes to the importance of science. “We’ve all seen with the pandemic how important science is and what it means to have a vaccine and the health risks,” Karen shared. “Science is so important to every aspect of our life but we don’t get a lot of exposure to the scientists themselves.”
She hopes the upcoming elementary and high school students in the Rocket City take advantage of the research and opportunities around them.
“Most of us who are getting these awards started with a single step forward, with a question we were passionate about, building that type of momentum over time, it’ll pay off, and it’s never easy and never a direct path but the process of getting there is really an enriching thing,” Karen said.
Karen’s words to those with big dreams, “Goals can sometimes seem daunting when you are young, but with continuous hard work, you can change the world.”