Monday, October 12, 2015

I'm not laughing.

This week, while attending the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, I learned  about wonderful advances in the field of genetics and human genetics, including initiatives to push forward personalized medicine, resources for understanding genetic susceptibilities to disease, efforts to catalog typical patterns of human variation, and methodologies aimed at improving our ability to investigate human history, health, and sickness.

This conference also has a large hall of vendors with resources for geneticists. These include services for sample collection, processing, analysis, and interpretation. Generally these vendors have some give-aways, ranging from candy to pens to t-shirts, that help promote their brand.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I passed a booth with a give-away that clearly did not promote their brand. I literally did a double-take, then stood there with scrunched eye-brows while reading this:

Photo by M. Wilson Sayres

Let's break this down just a bit.

Some science
First, the company sells a product for DNA extraction. Each of our cells has many different components that need to be removed if we want to look at the DNA. DNA exists in one part of the cell:

By Eukaryote_DNA.svg: *Difference_DNA_RNA-EN.svg: *Difference_DNA_RNA-DE.svg: Sponk (talk) translation: Sponk (talk) Chromosome.svg: *derivative work: Tryphon (talk) Chromosome-upright.png: Original version: Magnus Manske, this version with upright chromosome: User:Dietzel65 Animal_cell_structure_en.svg: LadyofHats (Mariana Ruiz) derivative work: Radio89 derivative work: Radio89 (This file was derived from  Eukaryote DNA.svg:) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

DNA extraction is where you take a sample of cells (for example a cheek swab, or blood sample), and you go through a process to separate the DNA within the cells from the rest of the parts of the cell.

The joke hinges on racism
The phrase on the shirt, "MY DNA is PURE," is supposed to be a joke with a double meaning. They are referring to the pure collection of DNA, using their method, but it can only be viewed as a joke or a witty phrase if it is also viewed in reference to language about purity of DNA used by the eugenics movement and white supremacist groups. For the shirt to be funny, you have to understand that supremacists claim to have "pure DNA" relative to other "races", from a misinformed understanding of genetics, but that their company really does give you the purest extraction of DNA.

Get it? Isn't that so funny?

P.S. They are totally not racists.

Discussing the shirt in person
After my double-take, and stopping to ponder why anyone would think that it is okay to use eugenics, an embarrassing and shame-filled history of genetics, as the butt of a joke at a human genetics conference, I decided it would be worth talking with the people at the booth (all white men) about how that message would poorly represent their company. Each of the three representatives were busy, so I waited my turn to speak.

When one of the representatives was free, I expressed my concern about the shirt, how it makes light of the history of eugenics, and how it may send a message of exclusion from their company. It turns out that the person I spoke to is the president of the company. He listened politely, then responded that no one had raised that concern, and they had never even considered that it might be harmful to anyone. I responded, that this type of language is still routinely used by supremacist groups and to marginalize many people, and that it wouldn't send a good message. He responded that he hadn't heard any complaints from anyone else at the conference about the shirt, and that, in fact, many people told him how much they loved it. With that, I thanked him for his time, asked him to please think more about the message this was sending, and then left him to his booth. As I walked away, two people walked up and asked for the shirt.

A larger discussion
At this point, I decided to make a comment on the shirt to the broader conference attendees, using the conference hashtag:

Some people were equally shocked, some were not sure what the shirt could be referring to other than eugenics/supremacy, and then, there were those who either thought I was being too sensitive about the joke, or who completely misunderstood what it was about.

To me, the range of responses illustrates how many people are blissfully unaware of the history of eugenics, whether they are part of the general population, or M.D. and Ph.D. scientists studying human genetics.

Eugenics and before.
Let's take a step back then, and think about eugenics.

With understanding about genetic inheritance came the idea of eugenics: That we could improve the condition of the human population by using genetics, that we could cull harmful features using the wonders of modern genetics. Through eugenics, it was claimed, we could promote reproduction of people with desired traits, and prohibit reproduction of people with undesirable traits. This hinges on the idea that there are people with "pure DNA", who are free from those harmful genetic anomalies that society should eliminate. Ideas about genetic, or "racial" purity, existed well before the eugenics movement, but genetics gave a sense of legitimacy to the supremacist notions that already existed.

The glass of undesirable traits that eugenicists typically promoted removal of ranged from physical and mental disability, to calls to purge whole ethnic and racial groups.

Eugenics is, and has been, used to justify "euthanasia" of people with physical and mental illness, forced sterilization, prohibition of "race mixing" relationshipsmillions of murders, and generally to advocate for white supremacy.

Modern supremacist groups still talk about the purity of their DNA relative to people from ethnic and racial groups that they view as inferior to themselves.

Eugenics does not belong in human genetics
To anyone attending a human genetics conference, the connection between "pure DNA" and the mis-use of genetics to advocate for eugenics should be obvious, and unacceptable.

To anyone who could look around the ~6,500 participants at the American Society of Human Genetics conference, and not be glaringly aware of the demographic disparity is, at best, exhibiting privileged blindness. A message steeped in racism, ableism, and classism, whether intentional or not, can only contribute to a harmful climate for scientists who represent the butt of that joke.

A joke that hinges on eugenics and supremacy does not belong at a human genetics conference. 


Education resources
There are many resources for learning more about eugenics, and I couldn't cover even a fraction of them here, but I encourage you to check out these, and other materials.

A big "thank you" to Dana Waring Bateman for pointing out this collection of lesson plans from the Personal Genetics Education Project . Especially note the lessons on:"History, eugenics and genetics" and "Using primary resources to examine the history of eugenics"

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has an image archive on the history of eugenics here,, including several virtual exhibits you can click through.

The University of Washington has this History of Eugenics Resource guide:

Funding 101: Advice from successful academics

Here is some advice about finding and applying for research funding from two very successful researchers who sat on the panel, Kimberly Scott from the School of Social Transformation and Executive Director of COMPUGIRLS, and Stuart Lindsay from the Biodesign Institute.


  • Approach program officers. They want to talk with you if you have a clear plan, and if you can demonstrate how what you are proposing fits with their program, and with your past research.
  • Send your past research, also send updates to program officers from the project, even after the funding ends (data keeps coming)
  • Some program officers go to conferences. If they're at the same session you are at, introduce yourself
  • Program officers can go to bat for your, especially when you may be off cycle.
  • Volunteer your time as a panel reviewer


  • Do what you do, don't let people push you into an area to fit the funding.
  • Be flexible, adapt to new areas.
  • Be multi-cultural in terms of your language: Need to use a different type of language for different sponsors (e.g. Gates versus NSF). Convey your excitement using a different language.
  • The Feds are like a small town: Everyone talks. Everybody knows everybody. Be consistent with how your communicate with people.
  • Pitched ideas may be shopped around and come back to you.

Advanced planning

  • Get a clear understanding about the expectations from your department as it relates to external funding. Do you have to be funded? Do you need NSF or NIH? Can it be funded by a foundation?
  • Talk to people on the Promotion and Tenure committee.
  • Courtship: Gates foundation grant took years, unlike federal funding. Takes a lot of advanced funding.  Foundations need to get to know you, who you all are. Two years of talking/calls before being invited to submit a proposal.
  • Helpful to find an intellectual partner - "date" your professional partner. Once you are a team with a person (5, 8, 10 years of funding). It's like a marriage. You want to have a good idea of how you are going to get along.
  • Funders are looking for collaborative work.

Communicate clearly and take advice

  • Explaining highly technical things to a lay audience. Review panels are lay audiences. To that reviewer, most of the proposals will be out of their technical expertise.
  • "Explain to your grandma" trope can be useful.
  • Don't be afraid of being pushed. Listen to those big questions from the philanthropists.
  • Continue to learn from people who ask, "Can you do X?"

General thoughts about academia, broader impacts, and funding

  • Every hour that you are in a classroom here, you will be changing lives. At this State school, you are teaching the demographic of the state.
  • Funding agencies are conservative.
  • Heartbreaking to sit on a review panel and watch brilliant ideas smashed by small minds.
  • If your thesis adviser was a bigshot in some field, it is probably an old field.
  • Far better to be an untenured failure and go out with a big idea than spend 40 years doing something you dislike.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Wilson Sayres lab presents at #ASHG15

Two members of my lab will present at the 2015 meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics. To learn about presentations in real time, can follow tweets from @mwilsonsayres, and the hashtag: #ASHG15 on twitter. 

Kimberly Olney will present a poster, also uploaded on FigShare, Inferring biased allele expression across the genome
Thursday October 8th
Poster 1700
Convention Center, Hall E, Level 1
ASHG Poster session. 

I will present a talk, also uploaded on FigShare, Genetic diversity on the human X chromosome suggests there is no single pseudoautosomal boundary
Saturday, October 10
Room 309, Level 3, Convention Center
Full Session 69: The Causes and Consequences of Evolutionary Change (10:30 AM–12:30 PM)