Awardee Profile - Joseph D. Terwilliger

Joseph Terwilliger

Portrait of a Reluctant Geneticist:
Dr. Joseph D. Terwilliger

October 2001 - He is an anomaly in the world of science, a man who never intended to be a scientist but seems to have a knack for genetics. Joseph D. Terwilliger, Ph.D., assistant professor in the psychiatry department at Columbia University, and one of the Fund’s Hitching-Elion Fellows, ended up in graduate school at Columbia University because it paid better than a fast-food restaurant.

“Honestly, I never wanted to be a scientist,” Dr. Terwilliger insists. “I did not take any science classes in high school to speak of, and I did my undergraduate work at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. I took a few genetics courses there because it was kind of interesting, but I never imagined going into science.”

After receiving a Bachelor’s of Music in tuba performance, Dr. Terwilliger headed to New York City with the hopes of pursuing a career in music. After applying to a number of graduate schools in different fields, he handed his life over to the course of fate, which directed him down his current career path.

“Columbia accepted me in genetics, much to my surprise,” Dr. Terwilliger explains. “ I could not believe they were actually going to pay me to go to grad school. In music you have to teach classes just to pay your tuition, and then you have to get a job to pay the rent. While in science they actually were going to pay me, which seemed like an unbelievable scam at the time.”

An unbelievable scam perhaps, but it worked out well for Columbia University since Dr. Terwilliger seemed to have an innate ability, as well as a driving interest in statistical genetics.

“I went to grad school since it was better than working at McDonalds like most people with a degree in music. I was amazed to find out I was good at it, and actually enjoyed it. After a few years of auditions and trying to pursue the music career, I realized that science was a much more reliable way to make a living.”

Dr. Terwilliger still plays the tuba in a few working music groups, although science has become his primary career through what he calls “a series of fortuitous accidents, not any real life plan.”

Initially Dr. Terwilliger decided statistical genetics might be a good fit for him because he knew he was good in math, viewing genetics as “fun math games.”

“When I first came for my interview, my future advisor told me he worked on linkage analysis and gene mapping, I smiled, and said ‘great.’ Actually I was wondering in my head what the heck linkage analysis and gene mapping was,” Dr. Terwilliger states. 

Dr. Terwilliger subsequently completed a M.A, M.Phil., and a Ph.D. in genetics and development at Columbia University.

During his time in the United Kingdom as a Hitchings-Elion fellow, Dr. Terwilliger worked with Dr. G. Mark Lathrop at the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics, developing statistical methods and writing software.

“I work with development statistical genetics, as well as the application and design of genetic experiments,” Dr Terwilliger explains. “I’m a statistician. I work on ways of analyzing data; helping people design experiments and trying to find the best way of collecting data.”

Dr. Terwilliger says that he feels the Hitchings-Elion fellowship he received offered him the flexibility to free up his time, to gather pilot data and coordinate international collaboration for a study to investigate the Korean diaspora.

“Koreans are a unique natural experiment in this regard, as the Kazakhstan Koreans were forcibly relocated there by Stalin in 1937. Today there are about 250,000 Koreans in central Asia as a result of that forced migration event,” says Dr. Terwilliger. There are more than 100,000 Korean adoptees in Europe and the United States who are biologically Korean and culturally European, according to Dr. Terwilliger.

“These populations provide a unique laboratory to look at gene-environment interactions in humans,” he says. “We can make more realistic estimates of how genetically linked some of these traits really are. It is easy to show that most study designs currently used systematically bias the estimates of heritability upwards, making everything appear more genetic than it really is. We are proposing a study design that will show that phenotypes are not as genetic as we think they are.”

Dr. Terwilliger is setting the stage for research that will investigate the normal variation in quantitative traits that are risk factors for chronic disease in later life. The Korean diaspora project will target large families of Koreans living in Kazakhstan, Korea, the United States, overseas adopted Koreans in Europe and, where possible, their families both biological in Korea, and non-biological in Europe.

 “As a theoretician, my research costs are minimal on a day to day basis, paper and pencil and an old computer are all I need,” Dr. Terwilliger explains. “I have used the money from this fellowship to help pay for the numerous reference materials I have used for the background research for this project, mostly in Korean – which I studied in grad school. I have also arranged the initial meetings with our potential collaborative partners in Kazakhstan, Russia, China, Korea, and Sweden.”

Dr. Terwilliger says that the independent funding offered by BWF has made it possible to apply theoretical models in practice.

“It would have been very difficult to fund otherwise, given the multidisciplinary nature of this project, which involves cultural and physical anthropologists, historians, geneticists, epidemiologists, clinicians, sociologists, nutritionists, and others, and requires working with people in multiple languages and multiple cultures,” he says. “It is fascinating, but a bit outside the realm of conventional scientific thought. The freedom of the Hitchings-Elion Fellowship has made this possible.

Questions for Joseph D. Terwilliger, Ph.D.

Name:  Joseph D. Terwilliger, Ph.D.
Title:  Assistant Professor
Recipient:  Hitchings-Elion Fellowship
Affiliation:   Columbia University

What is the best thing about your job?


What is your philosophy with respect to your research?

Think about everything from first principles, and never believe anything anyone tells you unless they can prove it to you from first principles, not from mere extension of existing ideas, which may be flawed from first principles themselves.

What kind of advice would you give a scientist just entering academic research?

Don’t believe anything unless you can prove it yourself… Always be critical!

If you had unlimited resources, what one big scientific question would you pursue?

At the moment, I am mostly involved in the Korean diaspora project. We hope to simplify some of the questions people are asking about genetics, and at the same time to get a more educated idea about the effects of gross cultural and environmental differences on the genetic correlations in families for numerous quantitative traits.

What do you feel is your greatest failure? Why?

That I did not get a job as an orchestral tuba player as I always wanted to do!

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment? Why?

That I managed to successfully switch careers when circumstances presented themselves, going from musician to scientist in a relatively short time, and being fairly successful in statistical genetics despite that when I started this program in grad school in 1987, I did not know what an integral, a probability, a lod score, or really even what recombination was.

Who do you admire? Why?

The scientist I most admire is Dr. Ken Weiss from Pennsylvania State University, because he really thinks about everything from first principles, and has influenced my thinking more than anyone I have met in my scientific career. He has been a meteorologist, a cartoonist, an anthropologist, and a geneticist, among other things in his career. The way he ties it all together is by thinking conceptually rather than focusing on the details, which is where I think most scientists get lost. They become expert at the minutiae but sometimes forget why they are doing what they are doing. Ken Weiss has helped me step back and think about the big picture at all times, so that I have drifted away from detail-oriented research into more conceptual research, focusing on how the various issues come together to solve the larger problem. 

What do you do for fun?

I enjoy music, obviously. I continue to play professionally when I am home, though lately my work has me traveling a bit more than I would like. As a result of the traveling I also have developed an interest in lots of different languages and cultures, which I think is critical to really getting involved in genetic projects, which aim to study those people. The look on the faces of people last month in China when I gave my lecture at a genetics conference there in Chinese was worth the effort I put into learning that, for example. Then, of course, there are the other silly things, like two years ago, I decided to enter the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest. I actually came in second, beating one former world champion, which was pretty exciting, though I have not eaten a hot dog since, as I was uncomfortable for a week. Eating nineteen foot long hot dogs with buns in twelve minutes can be a bit taxing! But it was certainly fun the first time!

What do you plan to do when you retire?

I thought the best part about scientific academic careers is that you are not required to retire.

What is your favorite book?

Lun Yu of Confucius.

-- This story was written by Susanna Smith, Communications Intern