This week I am attending the 62nd meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics here in San Francisco. Being a PhD student, I registered for several of the events aimed at Trainees.
As well as attending talks, visiting posters, and blogger star spotting, I attended the Trainee-Mentor luncheon. This informal lunch was described as a “wonderful opportunity for trainees…to meet and talk…with senior members of Society about career options, goals, and professional opportunities.” As I will describe, the group of trainees I sat with touched on career options and goals only briefly. Instead, over lunch we were exposed to the value of informal, interdisciplinary discussion, which it became apparent is important to the society member who hosted us.
Attendees were provided with a box lunch and the room was laid out as 23 tables, each hosted by a senior member of ASHG. I was fashionably slightly late for lunch, and by the time I arrived whilst there were plenty of roast beef sandwiches to be had, the tables hosted by academics who listed my area, statistical genetics among their interests were fully occupied. Deciding to take pot luck, I took a vacant seat at table 22, where the host was introducing herself. The Interest Areas associated with this table were “genetics and race; ancestry; social issues and policy”.As I took my seat, Charmaine Royal, Associate Research Professor in the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy and the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University, was introducing herself. Her web pages gives a brief biography, a paragraph that does not do justice to the colourful story that was weaved for us. Describing her career to date, Dr Royal described the difficult decisions she had faced as well as the chance opportunities she had been offered. It was interesting, and useful for those of us at the beginning of our careers to hear how she had combined her training with her own values and interests in order to carve out her own path.
After both Dr. Royal and the trainees seated at the table had introduced themselves, the floor table was thrown open for questions. Luca Pagani, registered in a PhD program at the Division of Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge UK opened the discussion by asking how he could usefully discuss the meaningful patters that he saw in the relationships between genetic markers and geographical or ancestral differences, when the concept of race was such a loaded one. This debate is at the core of Dr Royal’s work. At Duke, she teaches the course Race, Genomics and Society, so she was interested in what we had to say.
The discussion was robust loud passionate and lively. Each of us brought both our professional training and ourselves to the table. As a statistical geneticist, I was concerned about noisy data and about artefacts that introduce signal where there might be none, and about what we can meaningfully take from the results that we find. The results of Luca’s work have received press attention, and he has won the C. W. Cotterman Award here at ASHG2012 for his research. Congratulations Luca!. However, he was grappling with how best to present his science, in particular to the undergraduate students whom he supervised. Other trainees had backgrounds in ranging from genetics to social sciences and law, and we all had our points of view on how to discuss the intersection of ancestry, race and genetics.
All too soon we noticed that the room was clearing. In the throes of debate we had lost track of the time. Our luncheon had to come to a close – some trainees had posters to present that afternoon. One trainee pointed out that whilst the discussion had been great, the aim of the luncheon was to obtain careers advice, and we would appreciate what wisdom Dr Royal could bestow.
As is often the way with careers advice, Dr Royal’s suggestions were general. She emphasised how useful it was, for your own career and for the scientific endeavour, to take thorough training in one area and apply it to another. In her case a research background in genetics came with her to other areas such as bioethics. Among the trainees, a law student agreed that her previous studies, a degree in genetics, revealed the value of having a scientific perspective on the legal issues at stake. I recognised this student’s description of lawyers and scientists speaking as if in different languages. This perspective mirrors my own, as I brought my background in biochemistry with me as I moved to statistical genetics. I see both the rewards and the challenges, particularly surrounding communication, when statisticians and biologists work together.
I for one found this luncheon to be an unexpected delight. By joining researchers from diverse backgrounds I saw first-hand how much we all learnt in a brief hour of lively discussion. I would like to express my thanks to Dr Royal for giving her time to support trainees, and my fellow students and postdocs for being generous in sharing their knowledge and experiences. I would also like to encourage other trainees to seize opportunities like this, and to nudge any mentors who may be reading to consider offering their time in sessions like this. I had the impression that Dr Royal enjoyed her time with us as much as we did.