With a broad set of interests as well as a variety of experience levels with this topic, we plan to use the inaugural semester to build additional interest and expertise within the cluster, the local community of scholars, as well as external experts. Although this will be a multi-year thematic cluster, we wish to begin our effort by both building a common language and also by focusing on emerging issues
in this field.
Thus, in order to increase and maintain interactions with GxE researchers from Wisconsin as well as from other institutions, we propose two primary activities during Fall 2018 that will then be followed by additional programming in Spring 2019. We plan to hold one or two regular meeting(s) each month that will take on two forms around the topic of GxE—a combination of a journal club and seminar series for each “module”. Our first meeting each month will resemble a “journal club”, where the selected readings and discussion will highlight the content of the second meeting of the month—the seminar series speaker (either internal or external). These speakers will typically be co-programmed with one or more of the core constituent centers/institutes in the cluster (Holtz, Center for Demography and Ecology, etc) and led by a core cluster member to facility interdisciplinary dialogue as well as encourage a breadth of topics (i.e. Sober from Philosophy, Engelman from Genetic Epidemiology, Li from Psychology, Lu from BMI, Fletcher from Public Affairs, etc).
Importantly, we see the format of a seminar series as a way to focus and discuss cutting edge controversies in the field, rather than didactic presentations. Thus in many cases, we aim for the seminars to include a point/counterpoint pairing of speakers. These seminars will also build sequentially to meet our broader goals of creating a common knowledge base as well as highlighting important breakthroughs and controversies in the field. Some examples for the first semester could include (1) the state of the art in genome wide association studies (GWAS) (2) an overview of polygenic scoring methods (3) implications of direct to consumer genetic testing (4) how research techniques spread between natural and social scientists researching similar questions (5) combining population genetics and social science (6) advances in the use of Mendelian Randomization techniques for causal inference (7) funding possibilities for collaborative work at UW.
The Spring semester will further enhance a common understanding of relevant issues in GxE research but also push forward into next steps in transforming the cluster members through presenting UW research projects and further enhancing training opportunities for students and faculty and building bridges between individuals with complementary expertise in methods, data, and research questions. Each spring semester will culminate in a capstone miniconference that will both leverage expertise from Wisconsin faculty and external
A second set of activities for our cluster is to cultivate student engagement. We will both leverage existing training opportunities as well as create new opportunities. The Center for Demography and Ecology, the Center for Demography of Health and Aging, and the Institute for Research on Poverty have structured opportunities for graduate training that our cluster will further enhance. Each group has a weekly or bi-monthly meeting with between 20-40 graduate students across several disciplines, including economics, sociology, applied economics, social work, political science, and other disciplines. We plan on adding to the programming of each group by providing opportunities for training in the methods of genetics for these social science students. We will also provide opportunities for these students to engage in data analysis that allow GxE questions to be examined, including the use of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the UK Biobank, and the Health and Retirement Study. Our group has restricted access to each of the datasets and has ongoing research with students on each. In order to insure opportunities for a larger set of graduate students, we will also reach out to students in psychology, population health sciences, statistics, and similar departments not currently well representing in these groups. We will also seek to encourage undergraduate student engagement through the Concentration in Research and Analysis (CAR) in Sociology.
In addition to the training opportunities that complement the CDE, CDHA, and IRP student groups, we will also further develop a PhD level course that will focus on the integration on social science and genetic inquiry, specifically geneenvironment interaction research. Fletcher prepared and taught this course in Fall 2014 and 2016 (“Biodemography”) and attracted graduate students from population health sciences, sociology and economics. Li and Lu have scheduled related courses in Spring 2019.
A final component of the GxE cluster is the desire to reach out to additional departments and units on campus for further integration with the Holtz Center. While many disciplines are currently represented in the Cluster Proposal, including economics, sociology, philosophy, demography, and genetic epidemiology, we will strive to further integrate with the faculty in the Law School, History, gerontology
experts and the Institute on Aging, history, and the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery with a desire to create a cohesive and inclusive group of a reasonable and manageable size. Importantly, this cluster could serve as an important broadening of the interactions between the Holtz Center and several departments on campus that currently have limited affiliates (statistics, biostatistics, economics, population
health sciences) or have a small number of connections (public affairs, sociology).
An additional long term goal of this cluster, and use of the working group meetings, is to create a critical mass of investigators and students who would be positioned to compete for internal and external awards and additional funding. One example is the UW 2020 campaign, which would allow pilot project funding for group members as well as data collection activities; another example is an interdisciplinary grant proposal like the NSF Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Science (IBSS) program. In order UW to become a leader in an interdisciplinary field like gene-environment interaction research, we both need to build relationships and teams but also transition into specific projects.