Genetics & Genomics

July 2, 2024

Sarah Tishkoff named to receive the 2024 Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science

Sarah Tishkoff, PhD, and her collaborators have created one of the world’s largest databases of African diversity derived from genetic samples from more than 9,000 people representing more than 200 diverse ethnic groups.

Sarah Tishkoff, PhD Sarah Tishkoff, PhD

Sarah Tishkoff, PhD, whose groundbreaking work in evolutionary genetics and diversity has broad implications for understanding and treating human disease, is the recipient of the 2024 Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science, officials at Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced this week.

Tishkoff is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor in Genetics and Biology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Global Genomics & Health Equity in the Perelman School of Medicine.

A leader in the study of human genetic variation, Tishkoff and her African collaborators have created one of the world’s largest databases of African diversity derived from genetic samples from more than 9,000 people representing more than 200 diverse ethnic groups — an unprecedented resource for biomedical research and diagnostic and therapeutic innovation.

She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is president-elect of the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG).

“We are pleased to bestow this honor on Dr. Tishkoff, one of the nation’s leading advocates for the inclusion of ethnically diverse global populations in human genetics and genomics research. Her work has advanced our understanding for how genetic traits have helped humans adapt and thrive in diverse environments,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Established in 2006, the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science recognizes scientists of national reputation who have a stellar record of research accomplishments and who are known for mentoring others in science.

Prize winners receive an honorarium, present a special seminar, and mentor a Vanderbilt Prize Scholar, a graduate student in the biomedical sciences in the School of Medicine.

Tishkoff, who holds appointments in the Schools of Medicine and Arts and Sciences at Penn, has mentored more than 40 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and supervised dozens of undergraduate students in research internships.

“We are thrilled to honor Dr. Sarah Tishkoff with the 2024 Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science. Her pioneering work in evolutionary genetics and commitment to inclusivity in research has significantly advanced our understanding of human genetic diversity and its implications for health,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, Chief Scientific and Strategy Officer for VUMC. “Dr. Tishkoff’s dedication to mentoring the next generation of scientists and her innovative contributions to genomics exemplify the spirit of the Vanderbilt Prize. We look forward to the continued impact of her research on the global scientific community.”

The award presentation and Vanderbilt Prize lecture will be scheduled for Spring 2025.

“I am deeply honored to be a recipient of the Vanderbilt Prize and to be recognized alongside so many accomplished women scientists and mentors,” Tishkoff said. “I have been fortunate to work with postdocs, students and collaborators from around the globe who have significantly contributed to our research successes.

“This award inspires me to continue striving to promote equity at all levels in the field of human genetics and genomics,” she said.

Born in Los Angeles, Tishkoff attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in genetics and Bachelor of Arts in anthropology. She continued her studies at Yale University School of Medicine, where she earned her master’s degree and, in 1996, her doctorate in genetics.

Before receiving her first faculty appointment at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2000, Tishkoff was a postdoctoral fellow at Pennsylvania State University and a visiting research fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. She joined the faculty at Penn in 2008.

In 1996, Tishkoff and her colleagues published the first paper to support the “Out-of-Africa” hypothesis, an explanation of the geographic origin and early migration of modern humans (Homo sapiens).

Five years later, her group was one of the first to report the genomic signature of natural selection in a human population, in this case the emergence of a mutation that confers resistance to malaria.

One of her most highly cited papers, published in 2007, was the first to show the convergent evolution over thousands of years of a cultural and genetic trait — cattle domestication and persistence of the lactase gene, which is associated with the ability to digest milk.

Tishkoff is known for her novel integration of field work, laboratory research and computational methods, with linguistics and anthropology.

Using this approach, she has explored African population history, the genetic basis for observable traits (phenotypes) such as body size and disease susceptibility, and how humans have adapted to diverse environments and diets.

She also is a leading advocate for the inclusion of ethnically diverse global populations in human genetics and genomics research.

In a 2023 interview published by The Yale Daily News, Tishkoff said she chose to study Africa because ethnic diversity is greater there than on any other continent, and because “Africans are so underrepresented in human genetic studies.”

“I think that’s going to contribute to health inequalities,” she added, “because people won’t benefit from the findings which may lead to better therapeutics and diagnostics.”

In 2009 Tishkoff received a NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, which supported her research in Africa. Other awards include a David and Lucile Packard (Foundation) Career Award, a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award, the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale, and the ASHG Curtis Stern Award.

Equally committed to science communication and education, Tishkoff is a member of the NAS Board of Global Health, the scientific advisory board of the Packard Fellowships in Science and Engineering, and the editorial boards of the journals Cell and PLOS Genetics.

Tishkoff is among 19 recipients of the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science, two of whom subsequently won Nobel Prizes in Medicine and Chemistry. For a complete list of Vanderbilt Prize winners, go to the VUMC Office of Research website at and click on the “awards” tab.