UW initiative aims to bring together social sciences and genetics

Integrating the fields of genetics and social science is “putting us on the right track” for understanding the world better, a UW-Madison expert says. 

The university’s La Follette School of Public Affairs yesterday held a panel discussion on its Initiative in Social Genomics, which aims to bring together these disciplines to explore how genetics are connected to behavior, socio-economic outcomes and other factors. 

Jason Fletcher, a professor of public affairs with the school, underlined the complexity involved with combining two nuanced areas of study into one discipline. Still, conducting research focused on just one while excluding the other fails to recognize that both genetics and social factors interact with one another, he said. 

“By focusing on your one domain, you’re not including all of the relevant factors,” he said, noting that only in the past two decades or so has information from both fields been combined into the same data structures. 

He said the university is making major investments into training more people to “wrangle this firehose of data” to conduct meaningful social genomics research. 

“Because it is so complicated, the solutions so far have not been obvious, they’ve required a lot of work,” he said. “And we’re not there. We don’t have the solutions yet, but I think that’s the enterprise here, is that we need collaborations to build this bridge where both sides are building at the same time, and coming together.” 

Lauren Schmitz, an assistant professor of public affairs with the school, said that ever since the human genome was first fully mapped in 2003, “we have many more questions than answers about what makes us tick.” She noted rapid advancements in computing and genome sequencing have led to a flood of new genetic data that scientists are still working to understand. 

“In part, sequencing the human genome wasn’t the silver bullet humanity hoped for, because we realized that we can’t study the human genome in isolation,” she said yesterday. “If we want to gain a better understanding of how genetic diversity shapes who we are, we need to understand and get outside the lab, to study genetic diversity and our genes in the wild.” 

Conditions of work, environmental factors and even economic trends “also powerfully shape our life outcomes,” she noted. 

Her own research, focused on aging and longevity, explores how social conditions and disadvantages affect biological age. She said scientists can now calculate biological age “quite accurately” based on analysis of epigenetics, or how various factors affect gene expression. With just a blood sample, they can calculate how life circumstances are accelerating or slowing down the aging process. 

“This scientific explosion of data is really allowing us to see the impacts of public policy on the cellular level,” she said. 

In a 2022 study focused on the Great Depression, Schmitz sought to understand how this period of economic hardship affected biological aging. 

“What we found is that individuals who were in utero, who were in the womb during the Great Depression, were aging faster decades later,” she said. “And so here we see this really important connection between early life conditions and late-life aging.” 

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