Name: Lauren Schmitz
Title: Assistant Professor, La Follette School of Public Affairs
Hometown: Denver, CO
Educational/professional background: I received my B.A. in Economics from the University of Colorado at Denver, and my M.S. and Ph.D. in Economics from the New School for Social Research. This past spring, I received my M.S. in Human Genetics from the University of Michigan.
Previous position: Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan
How did you get into your field of research? My research in “social genomics” integrates theories and methods in the genomic, social, and population health sciences to answer questions relevant to public policy and social well-being. I was always interested in the social determinants of health, and while I was working on my Ph.D. I became interested in understanding the health effects of social policy through the lens of biology. The nature vs. nurture debate has always been intriguing to social scientists. As humans, we are social creatures whose behaviors are in part influenced by the culture of today, but our underlying DNA is a byproduct of millions of years of evolution. The intersection between these two worlds fascinates me, and with the growing availability of genomic data we can now examine the interplay between them in a whole new way. After I finished my Ph.D. in Economics, I started a postdoc at the University of Michigan where I was able to work with other scholars in this area and pursue my studies in Human Genetics.
What attracted you to UW-Madison? I was hired as part of the Social Genomics cluster. The cluster initiative was a perfect fit for my research and, as luck would have it, the position was posted the same year I went on the job market—kismet!
What was your first visit to campus like? It was cold outside, but inside everyone was very warm and inviting. Fresh baked cookies were in my hotel room when I arrived, and I met with faculty from several departments who were interested in my work and in collaborating. I remember thinking, “I could be happy here”—it felt like home. I also remember trying cheese curds for the first time!
What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with? This year, I’m teaching a course that I designed— Privacy, Policy, and Personal Identity in the Postgenomics Era—which will introduce students to policy issues surrounding genetic discoveries and the use of genetic data. First and foremost, I hope students come away with a desire to learn more. But I also hope they leave with a better understanding of how to consider the history, social context, limits, and complexity of genetic discoveries when framing policy problems or making policy recommendations.
Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use? I tweet @laurenlschmitz
Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how. I believe that conducting rigorous research has the power to affect positive social change within and outside of academia. My research is motivated by my desire to better understand how socioeconomic-related health disparities develop and affect life chances. Poor health not only diminishes well-being, but it also has lasting effects on educational achievement and access to economic opportunity. If we can better understand the degree to which biological and social forces affect health, we can design policies that incentivize change in ways that work with our bodies and improve the health of individuals and the economy at large.
What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties? For most complex traits or behaviors like educational attainment, smoking, or body mass index, our genes are not are destiny; they are working through the environment around us, and in many cases, healthy environments are compensatory. As a result, salutary health and social policy can lift all boats, regardless of the DNA we were dealt.
Hobbies/other interests: I regularly practice Vinyasa and Kundalini Yoga to keep myself grounded and creative. I also love consuming art—dance, visual art, theater, music—anything that grabs my attention and changes the way I see the world.