La Follette professors help inaugurate social genomics conference

Assistant Professor Lauren Schmitz speaks at a podium in the university's Memorial Union.
“This conference was an excellent opportunity for UW–Madison to demonstrate that it is a dynamic and exciting hub for social genomics research,” said Assistant Professor Lauren Schmitz, who helped organize the conference.

La Follette School professors Jason Fletcher and Lauren Schmitz helped organize the inaugural The Advances in Social Genomics Conference (TAGC) on June 8 and 9 this year, joined by nearly 100 of the top scholars from around the world working in the growing field of social genomics.

Hosted by the Center for Demography of Health and Aging, where Fletcher serves as director, the two-day conference at the Memorial Union on the UW–Madison campus featured 23 presentations across a variety of topics within social genomics including new directions in polygenic score analysis (estimating an individual’s genetic predisposition toward a trait or disease), advances in biological aging research, innovations in understanding gene-environment interactions, and more. Distinguished speakers included Kathleen Mullan Harris of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Carolina Population Center, Konrad Karczewski of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute, and Dorothy Farrar-Edwards of UW–Madison’s Collaborative Center for Health Equity.

Farrar-Edwards helped set the stage for the conference with an opening presentation on the All of Us program that aims to become the largest health database ever. The initiative hopes to ultimately have more than a million participants with a focus on historically underrepresented groups. All of Us would help accelerate health research and medical breakthroughs and lead to more precise and inclusive medicine, according to Farrar-Edwards.

It was a fitting start to the conference, since social genomics research uses vast amounts of genetic data and complex statistical analysis to illuminate how genes may contribute to social issues often addressed by social science research.

As co-director of the All of Us program at UW–Madison, Farrar-Edward’s opening speech also showcased UW–Madison’s prominence in the blossoming social genomics field. “This conference was an excellent opportunity for UW–Madison to demonstrate that it is a dynamic and exciting hub for social genomics research,” said Schmitz, who chaired the two sessions on biological aging. “I really enjoyed networking and gaining insights from experts outside our discipline and getting their feedback on our work.”

Jason fletcher addresses audience members at a conference.
The university’s Center for Demography of Health and Aging hosted the conference. Professor Jason Fletcher (speaking) directs the center and helped organize the conference.

Mullan Harris’ keynote speech punctuated day one with a discussion of how Add Health – the largest, most comprehensive longitudinal survey of adolescents ever undertaken with more than 20,000 people studied since 1994 – would figure into the age of social genomics research.

Karczewski’s keynote speech on day two highlighted the importance of ensuring diversity in genomic research. Currently, social genomic research underrepresents non-white populations and is almost exclusively in high-income countries, even though low- and middle-income countries comprise most of the global population.

Around these speeches that provided the scholars in attendance with glimpses into the rapidly growing availability of genomic data, topical sessions allowed researchers from around the world to present on the many advances taking place in the field currently.

It was an excellent start for a new conference that the organizers hope will grow and evolve along with the burgeoning field. “I’m excited to see how TAGC develops in the future,” Schmitz said. “I look forward to interfacing more with experts in human genetics so they can better understand our research and so we can learn from their discoveries and insights and how they may apply to our work.”

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