October 26 to December 27 (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.
This course differs from other workshops and courses on this topic in its adherence to understanding the ethics, misinterpretations, and potential social implications of social science genetics. Rather than simply learning methods, we will learn how to evaluate the literature in the field by taking into consideration how statistical parameters from genetics research can so easily be misinterpreted or misunderstood.
Students will come out of this course possessing familiarity with topics and methodology in social science genetics. They will be able to read and interpret literature in the field, and develop and project that can be carried out using the methods and data in this exciting, emergent, interdisciplinary field.
About the instructors
Robbee Wedow (email@example.com, @robbeewedow on twitter), on the left hand side of the photo, 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. Some of his recent work has appeared in Nature Genetics, The American Sociological Review, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Science, and The New York Times. You can read more about Robbee’s work at his website, robbeewedow.com.
Andrew Grotzinger, on the right hand side of the photo, 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.
There will be one instructor-led session each week, running for 2.5 hours. The session will be on Monday afternoons US Eastern Time/Monday nights Indian Standard Time. Every week, Robbee & Andrew will guide students in a discussion of literature relevant to social science genetics research. Students will also do some introductory hands-on work to begin learning what data looks like in the field as well as how methods are applied and how research is conducted in the field. Students will explore behavior genetics, twin and family models, heritability and genetic correlations, genome-wide associations studies, and polygenic score construction and use. In addition, a strong commitment to building a more ethical framework for social science genetics will undergird every aspect of the course, including analysis of how research in social science genetics is conveyed and covered in the media, and extensive discussion of best practices for accurate and responsible scientific communication.
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.
The course will admit around 20 students. It will cost $500/student, but there are slots reserved for students without the financial means to pay, so don’t let the cost dissuade you from applying. If you would like to be considered for a fee waiver, please select that option on your application.
Note that the Silver Beach Institute is not affiliated with MIT, Harvard, or any other university, and students will not receive any credential, degree, or official certificate at the end of the course.
At the end of this course, students will…
Have a basic understanding of the fundamental advantages and disadvantages of integrating genetics into social science research
Begin to be able to think about how to incorporate genetic tools like polygenic scores into their own social scientific research within an ethically-straightforward framework
Understand and be able to correctly interpret the basic technical terms from quantitative genetics literature
Be able to read, interpret, and critique social science genetics studies
Apply what they’ve learned into the development of a project of their own in social science genetics
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. For instance, students may wonder how the genetics of educational attainment interact with the social and political environment to influence an individual’s life outcomes. They may therefore choose to design a final project using polygenic scores to investigate how the locations in the genome that are associated with educational attainment interact with policy measures to influence education and health-related outcomes over time. Students may also wonder how parents pass along both genetics and the social environment to their children, and so they may choose to develop a study that takes advantage of within-family research designs to investigate the effects of so-called “genetic nurture.” Students will submit and receive extensive feedback on a research proposal that includes:
A literature review
The research question(s) the student plans to answer
The methods and data that will be used to answer this research question
A reflection on the ethical considerations and feasible of their proposed project
Example proposals will be shared in advance with students further along in the course.
Week 1: Introduction to Social Science Genetics and Introduction to Basic Biology
- Harden, K.P., and Koellinger, P. D. (2020). Using genetics for social science. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-10.
- Mills, Melinda C., and Felix C. Tropf. “Sociology, Genetics, and the Coming of Age of Sociogenomics.” Annual Review of Sociology 46 (2020).
Week 2: Heritability (how well differences in individuals’ genomes account for differences in their traits)
- Turkheimer, Eric. “Three laws of behavior genetics and what they mean.” Current directions in psychological science 9.5 (2000): 160-164.
- Visscher, Peter M., William G. Hill, and Naomi R. Wray. “Heritability in the genomics era—concepts and misconceptions.” Nature reviews genetics 9.4 (2008): 255-266.
Week 3: Twin and Family Models (a type of model that is often called a “naturally occurring experiment) that use differences in family members’ genetic relatedness and in their environments to explore to quantify both heritability and the effect of the environment on traits)
- Chapters 1 and 3 of Neale and Maes.
- Kendler, Kenneth S., et al. “The structure of genetic and environmental risk factors for common psychiatric and substance use disorders in men and women.” Archives of general psychiatry 60.9 (2003): 929-937.
- Polderman, T.J.C., Benyamin, B, de Leeuw, C.A, Sullivan, P.F. et al. (2015). “Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty year of twin studies,” Nature Genetics 47
- Briley, D. A., Livengood, J., Derringer, J., Tucker-Drob, E. M., Fraley, R. C., & Roberts, B. W. (2019). Interpreting behavior genetic models: seven developmental processes to understand. Behavior Genetics.
- Plomin, R., DeFries, J. C., Knopik, V. S., & Neiderhiser, J. M. (2016). Top 10 replicated findings from behavioral genetics. Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Week 4: Genome-wide Association Studies (a method that identifies places in the human genome that are highly associated with traits of interest)
- Chabris, Christopher F., et al. “The fourth law of behavior genetics.” Current directions in psychological science 24.4 (2015): 304-312.
- Hamer, D.H. and Sirota, L. (2000). “Beware the chopsticks gene,” Molecular Psychiatry 5-12.
- Lee, James J., et al. “Gene discovery and polygenic prediction from a 1.1-million-person GWAS of educational attainment.” Nature genetics 50.8 (2018): 1112. Supplemental Chapters 1 and 2.
- Ganna, Andrea, et al. “Large-scale GWAS reveals insights into the genetic architecture of same-sex sexual behavior.” Science 365.6456 (2019): eaat7693.
Week 5: Polygenic Scores (variables that reflect an individual’s estimated genetic predisposition for a given trait and can be used as a predictor for that or for other traits)
- Dudbridge, Frank. “Power and predictive accuracy of polygenic risk scores.” PLoS Genet 9.3 (2013): e1003348.
- Lee, James J., et al. “Gene discovery and polygenic prediction from a 1.1-million-person GWAS of educational attainment.” Nature genetics 50.8 (2018): 1112. Supplemental Chapters 6.
- Belsky, Daniel W., et al. “The genetics of success: How single-nucleotide polymorphisms associated with educational attainment relate to life-course development.” Psychological science 27.7 (2016): 957-972.
- Belsky, D. W., & Harden, K. P. (2019). Phenotypic annotation: using polygenic scores to translate discoveries from genome-wide association studies from the top down. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(1), 82-90.
- Martin, A. R., Kanai, M., Kamatani, Y., Okada, Y., Neale, B. M., & Daly, M. J. (2019). Clinical use of current polygenic risk scores may exacerbate health disparities. Nature genetics, 51(4), 584-591.
Week 6: Multivariate Genomic Methods (methods that assess multiple, often related, outcomes)
- Bulik-Sullivan, B., Finucane, H.K., Anttila, Y., Gusev, A., et al. (2015). “An atlas of genetic correlations across human diseases and traits,” Nature Genetics 47(11).
- Bulik-Sullivan, B., Loh, P, Finucane H.K., Ripke, S. et al. (2015). “LD Score regression distinguishes confounding from polygenicity in genome-wide association studies,” Nature Genetics 47(3).
- Grotzinger, A. D., Rhemtulla, M., de Vlaming, R., Ritchie, S. J., Mallard, T. T., Hill, W. D., … & Koellinger, P. D. (2019). Genomic structural equation modelling provides insights into the multivariate genetic architecture of complex traits. Nature human behaviour, 3(5), 513-525.
- de la Fuente, J., Davies, G., Grotzinger, A. D., Tucker-Drob, E. M., & Deary, I. J. (2020). A general dimension of genetic sharing across diverse cognitive traits inferred from molecular data. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-10.
Week 7: Ethical Concerns and Communication in Social Science Genetics
- “Dangerous Work.” (2013). Nature 502 (3): 5-6.
- Hansen, E.T., Gluck S., Shelton, A.L. (2015). “Obligations and Concerns of an Organization Like the Center for Talented Youth.” The Genetics of Intelligence: Ethics and the Conduct of Trustworthy Research, special report, Hastings Center Report 45 (5): S66- S72.
- Hayden, E.C. (2013). “Taboo Genetics,” Nature 502 (3): 26-28.
- Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2002). “Summary and Recommendations” Genetics and Human Behavior: The ethical context. xix–xxxiii.
- Parens, E. and Appelbaum, P.S. (2015). “An Introduction to Thinking about Trustworthy Research into the Genetics of Intelligence,” The Genetics of Intelligence: Ethics and the Conduct of Trustworthy Research, special report, Hastings Center Report 45 (5): S2-S8.
- Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (2018). “Frequently Asked Questions for Lee et al. (2018), “Gene discovery and polygenic prediction from a 1.1-million-person GWAS of educational attainment”.
- https://geneticsexbehavior.info, entire site, including video.
Week 8: Social Science Genetics in the Media (focusing on the GWAS of the genetics of same-sex sexual behavior)
- Many Genes Influence Same-Sex Sexuality, Not a Single ‘Gay Gene’. (2019). New York Times.
- Phelps S and Wedow R. (2019). What genetics is teaching us about sexuality. New York Times.
- The Broad Institute’s Perspectives on the complex genetics of same-sex sexual behavior, including all perspective pieces included under the section “Perspectives”
- Maxman, Amy. “Controversial ‘gay gene’ app provokes fears of a genetic Wild West.” Nature 574.7790 (2019): 609.
Week 9: Peer Feedback
Each student will share details of their individual project and receive feedback from the rest of the group.