Color's Alicia Zhou boosts testing, vaccines and healthcare infrastructure during COVID-19

Alicia Zhou
(Graphic by David La Cava/Image courtesy of Color)

Alicia Zhou, Chief Science Officer, Color

Age: 36

Education: She earned a B.S. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in biological and biomedical sciences from Harvard University.

About her: In her role as chief science officer at Color, Zhou has gained recognition for spearheading COVID-19 testing and vaccinations as well as genomics to help scientists gain a better understanding of public health. She has led research into COVID-19 variants to highlight to public health agencies the need for key genetic information.

Zhou’s team published novel research with Carl Bergstrom, a leading epidemiologist, using a COVID-19 epidemiological model to show how testing can mitigate outbreaks in workplaces, primary schools and secondary schools. “This work was built with administrators and decision makers in mind and can be directly applicable to each setting’s unique circumstances and needs.”

In addition, she published work on polygenic risk scores (PRS) in Nature Communications in August 2020, which discussed how genetic testing leaves out important information by only targeting known biomarkers. She and her team found that understanding mutations is important to understand the risk of specific diseases. This research is “changing how physicians use genetic testing for clinical care, and how individuals understand and take action to address their own genetic risk.”

Zhou is focused on guiding patients to personalized care and changing how people engage with their health.

In the last year, Zhou oversaw a team of 50 that received FDA Emergency Use Authorizations for Color’s lab assay and for Color’s self-swab collection kits. “These kits are a vital part of Color’s larger platform, which increases testing access where people live and work. Our flexible platform can provide end-to-end logistics and infrastructure for entire programs, or can be customized to manage appointments, registration, tracking, reminders, and reporting at public sites, prioritizing ease of use and attention to the needs of underserved communities. Since launching in March 2020, Color has returned more than 4 million COVID-19 tests, with nearly 95% of test results processed in the company’s Burlingame lab returned in less than 24 hours.”

Zhou serves as a principal investigator with the National Institute of Health’s All of Us research program, which collects health and genetic data for 1 million participants.  She makes it possible for all the participants to receive genetic results back in an easy-to-use manner that’s supported by genetic counselors. Zhou was a speaker at the TEDxCentennialParkWomen conference in November 2018. “Giving a TEDx talk was exhilarating and inspiring, and was one of the first times I really understood how powerful sharing one’s personal story can be.”

Her previous roles at Color included vice president of research and scientific affairs and managing partnerships with healthcare providers and research institutes to expand access to genetic testing.

First job: “My first job was as a student research technician in the lab of Dr. Geoffrey Greene at the University of Chicago. I started working for him when I was a junior in high school. At the beginning, I spent a lot of my time shadowing the graduate students and postdocs in the lab. I would often be responsible for some of the busywork, but over time, as I learned more, I was given my own experiments to perform and projects to complete. The time I spent in the Greene Lab really taught me a lot of the basics of benchwork and set the foundation for how to think and behave like a scientist.”

Proudest accomplishment: “I’m very proud of the work that I have been able to accomplish at Color. When I started at Color, I was a part-time contractor on the Genetics team. However, over the past six years, I have been able to create my own team and chart my own path at Color. I am proud to have built a diverse, ambitious, and talented team of scientists who remain committed to Color’s mission of helping every individual live their healthiest lives. I am also extremely proud that Color has become a leader in the field of population health and is now recognized in the academic science community as a company that is collaborative, innovative, and data-driven. It has been a real privilege to be able to shape and grow this company as we have expanded over the past six years.”

Problem she’s most passionate about trying to solve: “At Color, our current focus is on continuing to build the public health infrastructure for the country. In the U.S., we don’t have the infrastructure to deliver on the “last mile” of care, where the care actually reaches the individuals in a community. We saw this with testing and now vaccines in the COVID-19 pandemic. Since Color’s founding, we’ve strived to tackle this problem for the healthcare space, but this latest health crisis has accelerated the need for a solution.”

Book she recommends: 'Bad Blood' by John Carreyou. “The book focuses on the rise of fall of Theranos, and details some of the trials and hardships that many healthcare startups might face. I think this is an important cautionary tale for everyone to be aware of; it is crucial when innovating in the health industry to work in a science-first and data-driven way.”

Advice she would give her younger self: “Stop caring about what other people think. Especially growing up in an Asian household, I was always hyperaware of the expectations that were set for me. I constantly felt a need to please others while also being afraid to feel pride for my accomplishments, for fear that it would be mistaken for immodesty. One of the most empowering decisions I have made at Color is to stand up for my point of view and not worry about what others will think. It is important to speak up clearly and with conviction when you want to be heard. Self-confidence and self-reliance are both important characteristics that every leader should be able to exhibit, and I wished I had known this earlier in my career.”

What she’d do with her career if it wasn’t this: “My passion and focus will always be on science and mentorship. If I weren’t at Color, I would be in a career that allowed me to satisfy both of those pillars. There is nothing more inspiring and captivating than the spark of scientific discovery and innovation. And there is nothing more satisfying than being able to light and nurture that same spark within others.”

Biggest lesson so far from the global pandemic: “The biggest lesson we keep learning is that while we tend to think of healthcare and public health challenges as science and technology problems, in reality, they are logistics problems. While it’s important to have innovative testing technology and FDA EUAs that allow that technology to be used, the most important element is making sure that innovation can make it to as many people as possible. 

“For example, providing COVID-19 testing for an underserved population, like farmworkers in a rural area, isn’t as simple as increasing the number of tests a laboratory can process. You have to bring testing sites to the communities where farmworkers live and work. You have to make the test easy to use and return results quickly."

Color's Alicia Zhou boosts testing, vaccines and healthcare infrastructure during COVID-19