Researchers convene to discuss social genomics during second annual conference

Conference attendees pose for a photo outside of the Pyle Center

Over a hundred researchers and community members gathered to discuss the quickly growing field of social genomics during The Advances in Social Genomics Conference on June 5 – 7. La Follette School professors Jason Fletcher and Lauren Schmitz, who are among the five core members of the Initiative in Social Genomics that moved to the La Follette School last year, helped organize the three-day event at the Pyle Center in Madison. The conference showcased the work of researchers from around the world in the fields of social science and genetic research, looking at how genes are linked with behavior and socio-economic outcomes, how genes and environments interact, and how social conditions can influence humans all the way down to the cellular level.

The Promise and Perils of Social Genomics

To kick off the conference, La Follette partnered with Wisconsin Health News to offer a public event that introduced some of the opportunities and challenges the field of social genomics presents to policymaking and public health. The panel discussion was moderated by Tim Stumm, founding editor of Wisconsin Health News, and featured Fletcher, Schmitz, and conference keynote speaker Professor Anya Prince of the University of Iowa College of Law as panelists.

Panelists speak at a table
Panelists Anya Prince, Jason Fletcher, Lauren Schmitz, and Tim Stumm (left to right) at the public Promise and Perils of Social Genomics event

Schmitz, who studies disparities in aging and health, began the presentation by describing the history of social genomics since the human genome was first mapped in 2003. This breakthrough introduced an enormous amount of genetic data that has answered many questions but still has not been fully reckoned with by researchers. Fletcher, an economist by training, emphasized the importance of interdisciplinarity when studying social genomics, “By focusing on your one domain, you’re not including all of the relevant factors.”

Meanwhile, Prince described how the databases of individuals’ genetic information are used for medical research and research into genetic indexes that have a social component including income and educational attainment. Panelists fielded questions from a packed audience drawn from the private sector, state government, and more than fifteen schools, departments, and offices within UW-Madison.

View recording

Conference Sessions

During the second day of the conference, attendees dove deeper into a wide range of subjects including developing social genomics methods, epigenetics, the ways that genetics shape partner choice, and more. The 24 panelists included scholars from over a dozen universities in a variety of positions including tenured professors, post-docs, and students. The day concluded with a keynote presentation by Anya Prince on the ethical, legal, and social implications of genetic testing for social traits. Prince described how polygenetic scores, which measure an individual’s genetic predisposition toward a trait or disease, could be used to predict a person’s trajectory in social phenomena such as criminality and educational attainment, as well as the complications using genetic data for social science research can present.

Abdel Abdellaoui speaks at podium
Abdel Abdellaoui

Day three began with a keynote by Abdel Abdellaoui of Amsterdam UMC focused on the ramifications of socio-economic status on genetics. In many cases, regional differences in the socio-economic outcomes correlate with a genetic difference. Socio-economic status affects the way that humans migrate and couple which can exacerbate genetic differences between regions. The keynote highlighted the interaction of genetic and social phenomena, and the way these processes shape one another.

The conference culminated with a workshop on the Midlife in the U.S. study, a long-term study in health and aging in the U.S. Presented by Robert Krueger, Colin Freilich, and Kristian Markon all from the University of Minnesota, the workshop described the genomic data collected for MIDUS, recent projects that utilized MIDUS data, and how participants could access MIDUS data for their own future research.

Speaker presents to a room of people
Silvia Barcellos, who will join the La Follette faculty in the fall, presents during a session on genetic-environmental interaction

By bringing researchers together around this emerging area of research, the annual conference has helped establish UW-Madison as a hub for social genomics research. To view photos and recordings from the conference, visit the conference website. Read the Wisconsin Health News interview with Jason Fletcher about social genomics. Support for the conference was provided by the National Institute of Aging, the La Follette School for Public Affairs, the Center for Demography of Health and Aging, and the Initiative in Social Genomics.

– Story by Elliot Bliss

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