Starting October 26 (for 9 weeks)
Monday afternoons US ET/Monday nights IST

Introduction to Social Science Genetics

with Robbee Wedow (MIT & Harvard) and Andrew Grotzinger (Harvard Medical School & UT Austin)

Over the past several years, scientists have capitalized on newly-available molecular genetic data to explore connections between human genetics and many social and demographic phenomena. A notable example of this kind of work was the groundbreaking 2018 paper in the journal Nature Genetics authored by James J. Lee, Robbee Wedow (one of the course instructors), and others, that used a sample of over 1.1 million individuals to identify over a thousand places in the human genome that were highly associated with educational attainment. Other scientists have used the results of similar studies to demonstrate how genetic signatures for educational attainment predict social mobility into midlife. This course will help students learn the history of behavioral, statistical, and social science genetics while also engaging in discussions with the ethics involved in such work. Students will also become familiar with understanding and evaluating the cutting-edge research methods in social science genetics that resulted in these recent advantages. In the final three weeks of the course, students will meet in groups and individually with the instructors to create their own proposals for novel social science genetics research projects.

Robbee Wedow (left) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and a Fellow in Sociology at Harvard University. His main research interest is social science genetics, which lies at the intersection of sociology, demography, and statistical genetics. He is interested in how social forces and environments interact with genetics (gene-by-environment interactions). Using recent advances in genetic data collection and methodological developments in statistical genetics, he leverages large-scale genetic data to explore how sociological outcomes like educational attainment, risk taking behavior, smoking, drinking, or same-sex sexual behavior change across context, across time, and across outcome measurement. He is also deeply dedicated to clearly and sensitively communicating the findings from his work in an ethically-engaged and community-based fashion. His work outside of social science genetics focuses on population health, health disparities, religion and identity, and quasi-experimental designs and methodologies.

Andrew Grotzinger (right) is a clinical psychology fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital & Harvard Medical School. He completed his doctoral training in clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. His main research interests are in developing multivariate genomic methods that can be used to understand widespread patterns of genetic overlap across human complex traits. In particular, he is interested in applying these methods that he has developed to understand pervasive patterns of comorbidity across mental health traits, and to parse apart the shared and distinct influences on cognitive functioning. With respect to psychiatric outcomes, this can help us move towards a more biologically informed method of diagnosis and treatment. For cognitive functioning, application of these methods to late life cognitive outcomes has the potential to answer critical questions relevant to cognitive decline and associated outcomes, such as Alzheimer’s disease. His work has appeared in journals including Psychological Science, Nature Human Behavior, and Molecular Psychiatry.

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Starting August 10 (for 9 weeks)

Facts-based Fictional Worldbuilding

with Moiya McTier of Columbia University

From Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass to Star Trek to Legend of Zelda, fictional worlds have entertained, educated, and comforted us for centuries. A fictional world might be a universe that obviously differs from our reality because it has magic or advanced technology. It might also be a world where the differences are more subtle. One way or the other, they all take time and effort to build. This course will teach you make these imaginary worlds feel real using a science-based approach.

Facts-based fictional worldbuilding relies heavily on scientific research to motivate the creation of imaginary worlds. It starts by creating the environment of a world, the physical setting where a story takes place. The next step is to think about biology, which depends on environment and also a lot of randomness, so there’s plenty of room for imagination. The final step is to think about culture, a huge umbrella term that encompasses every aspect of life from what we eat to the stories we tell our children when we tuck them into bed (if we even have children or beds to tuck them into). Culture depends on both biology and environment, so it’s important to decide things in this order, but also recognize that all three can inform each other. For example, humans have grown taller as we develop ways to access nutritional foods year-round, and the pollution we put into the air has influenced which diseases are most common.

Over nine weeks, you’ll learn the steps of this particular approach to worldbuilding while also gaining factual knowledge from subject-matter experts. Through this interdisciplinary course, you’ll not only build your own fictional world, but also gain an appreciation for the inner workings of our reality.

Moiya McTier is an astrophysicist and folklorist who specializes in facts-based fictional worldbuilding. She studied both astrophysics and folklore mythology at Harvard University and is in her last year of a PhD program in astronomy at Columbia University. In her astronomy research, Moiya studies how the motion of the Milky Way affects populations of planets throughout the Galaxy. She recently started a podcast called Exolore, where she invites experts to help her imagine life on alien planets.

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Our educational philosophy

Our research-course based approach comes from the fact that most of our team's best learning experiences have come from being immediately immersed in detailed discussions of work in a field we're interested in, then starting small research projects as a way of engaging more deeply with the field's methods, conventions, and literature.

Somewhat counterintuitively, we've found that this can work well even for students who come in without a lot of background in the field — once intense interest in a particular topic is sparked, or a research project is begun, it is usually possible to work backwards to the necessary fundamentals using online resources such as free textbooks and course videos, as well as by asking questions to slightly more advanced peers.

We think that this kind of learning experience is among the most effective ways to put people on the path to doing substantive new work of their own that advances the frontier of human knowledge, which we see as the ultimate goal of all education.

Unfortunately, these sorts of research courses are not widely available to students outside of research universities, and in many cases are not open to even undergraduate students at such universities. That’s where we come in: the Silver Beach Institute exists to democratize access to learning experiences of this kind. Our courses are centered around semi-structured instructor-led discussions, ambitious student projects, and the forging of intellectual & social bonds across backgrounds and disciplines. We hope that these courses, which are each taught by a researcher or practitioner who is actively doing important and exciting work on the topic they teach, will seed a distributed research community where our heterogenous group of students can learn from each other and collaborate on substantive projects that make significant positive contributions to human society.

Our first course was Facts-based Fictional Worldbuilding, led by Moiya McTier of Columbia University. We are now taking applications for an Introduction to Social Science Genetics, led by Robbee Wedow of MIT's Broad Institute & Harvard University and Andrew Grotzinger of Harvard Medical School & the University of Texas at Austin.

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