UW–Madison’s prestigious Initiative in Social Genomics joins the La Follette School

Three DNA strands.

The La Follette School of Public Affairs gained one of the world’s largest and most innovative collaboratives in the emerging field of social genomics this month when the Initiative in Social Genomics officially joined its ranks.

The Initiative in Social Genomics integrates social science and genetic research to study how genes are linked with human behavior and socio-economic outcomes, how genes and environments interact, and how social conditions can influence humans all the way down to the molecular level. La Follette’s faculty members Jason Fletcher and Lauren Schmitz are two of the five core members of the initiative that was previously housed at the UW–Madison’s Center for Demography of Health and Aging.

Portrait of Jason Fletcher, professor of public affairs
Jason Fletcher

“This is an exciting time for scholars looking to answer social science questions that were previously considered nearly impossible to answer. Thanks to rapid advances in genetic research and the availability of massive datasets, new frontiers are continuously opening in this field,” Professor Fletcher says. “The La Follette School, with its rich history, resources and focus on evidence-based policymaking, will be an excellent home for the Initiative in Social Genomics to flourish.”

Fletcher is among the leading voices in the growing social genomics field. In 2017, he coauthored one of the seminal books in the field, The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future. Last year, he was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to continue his work on connecting early life conditions and mortality.

The Initiative in Social Genomics was established in 2018 as part of UW–Madison’s Cluster Hiring Initiative. The group’s goal is to expand emerging expertise addressing genetic, social and health science questions from multiple disciplinary backgrounds including health economics, genetic epidemiology, psychology, and statistical genetics. This research has significant policy implications and policymakers increasingly have access to rigorous evidence of connections between policy-driven social conditions and profound health consequences.

Portrait of Lauren Schmitz, Assistant Professor of Public Affairs
Lauren Schmitz

“The research teams that come together through the Initiative in Social Genomics are doing incredibly cutting-edge work right now that will increasingly guide policymaking as this research continues to advance and accumulate,” Assistant Professor Schmitz says. “One of the reasons La Follette will be such an ideal fit for the Initiative is its interdisciplinary nature that brings scholars from a variety of fields to tackle tough policy questions. Social genomics research is complex and requires many different skillsets and backgrounds.”

Joining the La Follette School in 2019, Schmitz has already established herself as an emerging star in social genomic and epigenomic research. Schmitz and her team of researchers were recently awarded a prestigious National Institute on Aging R01 grant to use advanced epigenetic and genetic data alongside detailed social, contextual, and health data for a fuller picture of the aging process in Malawi.

Later this year, the Initiative in Social Genomics will host its second annual The Advances in Social Genomics Conference from June 5-7. Last year’s debut conference brought together nearly 100 of the top social genomics scholars from around the world to share their research and continue developing the growing field.

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