THIS IS A SUBSCRIBER-EXCLUSIVE EPISODE. LISTEN TO THE PODCAST.
[00:00:07.070] – Angelica
Hello, world. Congrats. You made it to the secret bonus episode. This will be a mini-episode featuring a very special guest.
[00:00:32.750] – Bey
So you know how you have to check off boxes like race and ethnicity on health forms? Why do you think that information is important?
[00:00:39.790] – Angelica
I never knew. I do understand in some ways, but I also never really think… I just check it and I move on. What about you?
[00:00:47.340] – Bey
Same. You know, I take my time to make sure I see African American, Black, and that’s how I identify and how I move through the world. And I’ve never really had any issues with it. I just kind of check it and go.
[00:00:59.160] – Angelica
Yeah, I never really think about why I’m checking it, to be honest. I just check it.
[00:01:02.720] – Bey
Yeah, it doesn’t come up all the time, but certainly on health forms, I want there to be those boxes. We’re all different, and especially when it comes to our health.
[00:01:12.820] – Angelica
Our next guest is challenging how we think about diversity in a medical context. Let’s introduce her.
[00:01:19.100] – Bey
Sarah Tiskoff is a professor of genetics and biology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on African population history and how genetic variations within the population can affect a wide range of traits, including susceptibility to disease and adaptation through evolution. She is a co-author of the article, “Taking Race Out of Human Genetics,” which serves as a call for scientists to understand our genetic diversity without using the category of race. Instead, researchers can use more precise variables like ancestry to identify genetic relationships.
[00:01:53.720] – Sarah Tishkoff
I’m a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the departments of Genetics and Biology. So my background is a mixture of anthropology and human genetics, with a focus on studying genetic diversity in Africa.
[00:02:07.950] – Bey
Can you define what reconstructing history is? `What does that look like? What does that process? What does that mean?
[00:02:13.460] – Sarah Tishkoff
So this is reconstructing genetic history, and we are trying to reconstruct based on genetic data. So trying to figure out how individuals and populations are related to each other.
[00:02:26.560] – Angelica
What is the day-to-day life of someone who’s working on this? And when you’re doing this kind of research, what does it literally look like? Because we don’t know.
[00:02:33.780] – Sarah Tishkoff
Well, first of all, it’s a team effort. No single person does it alone. And it takes a long period of time. And we are focused on minority populations in Africa. So not people who are living in big cities, but are living in much more remote areas. And they’re practicing more traditional lifestyles. And it’s very challenging to even do that research because we have to use a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there. We have to bring all of our supplies with us. We set up a lab in the bush. We bring a generator. And so we get DNA from blood, typically because you can get a very large amount of DNA from blood. And then we look at what’s called phenotypic diversity. And phenotypic diversity is just looking at variable traits, height and weight and skin color. We look at infectious disease status. We can study blood pressure and oxygen levels and glucose levels and things like that. Glucose is an indicator of if somebody is at risk for diabetes, for example.
[00:03:31.540] – Angelica
[00:03:31.980] – Bey
Professor, you said it doesn’t sound like exciting, but…Offroading, remote generator, taking blood, trying to … Sounds like a whole adventure.
[00:03:41.040] – Sarah Tishkoff
That is the most exciting part, I have to admit. For me personally, I wish I could do more of it, but I have kids, so I can’t be leaving for six months to a year at a time.
[00:03:50.250] – Angelica
How will your niche research in a very small African population be applied to a family, say, in Idaho, meaning how transferable are your findings?
[00:03:59.630] – Sarah Tishkoff
Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing this research, say, in Africa. The results are applicable to people across the globe. They’re telling us something about fundamental biological processes. Right. So if, for example, I’m studying how people metabolize fat or sugar, and I’m studying different African groups that have very different diets and different genetic adaptations. But I’m learning about this biological process that could play a role in understanding why some people get diabetes or some people get hypertension. And it doesn’t matter if you’re African or Asian, European ancestry or whatever, you’re sharing that fundamental biology and you’re learning something about that.
[00:04:42.680] – Bey
How do those findings change our world view of culture, politics, and so on?
[00:04:48.500] – Sarah Tishkoff
I think the biggest significance of the findings was how much diversity there was, not just within populations, but between populations on the continent. And so we’re finding as much variation among some of the populations in Africa, even in a pretty small geographic region, as compared to what we might see across the rest of the world.
[00:05:07.240] – Bey
I was just wondering how race started to come into the conversation because you mentioned such diversity even within the continent. And so how and when did race start to become, I guess, a measuring stick for diversity?
[00:05:20.760] – Sarah Tishkoff
The problem with using race as we in the US define it is that it’s not always super informative, but it is perhaps reflecting something about shared culture. And certainly race in the US could be important when you’re talking about biomedical issues in terms of understanding social demographic risk factors for health disparities, different access to health care, systemic racism, all those can influence why people are getting sick and why some people might be getting sicker than others. So it’s not that it should be ignored in biomedical research, but we should move away from using it as a classifier to reflect genetic ancestry.
[00:06:14.190] – Angelica
Wow. This interview really opened my mind and expanded it. All of us in our traditional schooling have learned one way to look at genetics, and I think that she’s opening up an entirely new point of view.
[00:06:26.920] – Bey
I love how she talked about diversity. Right? When we think about diversity, a lot of times we think about it on the racial lines, right? But we’re talking about age. And I love how she said in just one area, one pocket of West Africa, there’s tons of diversity in that one space. And so, yeah, when we think about diversity, we have to open it up a little bit more. As we look at science and as we look at social contracts and different things like that, we’re kind of limited going back to the language point that keeps coming up, like how we describe things can really lock things into one place. But I love how she’s tearing away at that and saying, yeah, we should probably leave race out of looking at genetics.
[00:07:06.650] – Angelica
Yeah. And it’s really cool to think this way because you’re kind of like, well, if this is true, then what else can be? She’s sort of opening up the idea of a new set, of… A new horizon, pretty much. And I think that it really opens up an opportunity for us to collect more information that will help more people because we’re not lumping people into these binary groups the way that we used to, and we’re better exploring the spectrum within. So what do you think would be a benefit of thinking beyond the race binary in gene, and well, general science right now?
[00:07:40.240] – Bey
I had this sneaky suspicion. But before having this conversation, race doesn’t necessarily fully describe what it means to be human, whether you’re from one part of the planet or the other. And I think stripping these things away will root us in the actual experience of being a person and understanding it. And I really, again, just love the opening of that dialogue of diversity because within one group, she said there’s a ton of diversity, you know, genetic points that we just kind of completely overlooked because it’s Black and Brown, this is Southeast Asian, this is from over here.
[00:08:18.960] – Angelica
It’s true. And it’s kind of like taking a more personalized approach, which is definitely where medicine is going, something that I’m noticing.
[00:08:25.420] – Bey
Absolutely! You have to pay attention to people’s needs and behaviors and all these different things.
[00:08:29.690] – Angelica
And their own ancestry, and specifically where on this planet they are, because that all influences their genetics, and that gets passed on. So it’s way more than the color of their skin. It’s where they are precisely on our planet.
[00:08:44.550] – Bey
Yeah. And something that I picked up in this conversation is that genes mean something. For a long time, I didn’t think sickle cell… I thought it was just like the suffering and pain that people kind of went through. But apparently it kind of helps you fight malaria. And most people that have sickle cell of the African American diaspora… Like, that space. And it just made so much sense when she opened that discussion up about genes, genetics and discussed that more, I was like, oh, so our cells are trying to do something to protect us. But one good thing that happens, then some bad things happen as well to balance that out. We’re made up of so many weird things, and just understanding more what it means to be a person. What it means to be human.
[00:09:26.080] – Angelica
Yes, there’s a very wide range of traits when it comes to being human.
[00:09:39.850] – Angelica
Thank you so much, Sarah and thank you all for tuning in to this special episode of “So Curious!”