October 26 2020 to December 27 2020 (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 (rwedow@broadinstitute.org, @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.

Course Structure

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.

Course Objectives

At the end of this course, students will…

Final Project

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:

Example proposals will be shared in advance with students further along in the course.

Course Schedule

Week 1: Introduction to Social Science Genetics and Introduction to Basic Biology

Suggested Reading

Week 2: Heritability (how well differences in individuals’ genomes account for differences in their traits)

Assigned Reading

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)

Assigned Reading

Week 4: Genome-wide Association Studies (a method that identifies places in the human genome that are highly associated with traits of interest)

Assigned Reading

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)

Assigned Reading

Week 6: Multivariate Genomic Methods (methods that assess multiple, often related, outcomes)

Assigned Reading

Week 7: Ethical Concerns and Communication in Social Science Genetics

Assigned Reading

Week 8: Social Science Genetics in the Media (focusing on the GWAS of the genetics of same-sex sexual behavior)

Assigned Media

Week 9: Peer Feedback

Each student will share details of their individual project and receive feedback from the rest of the group.

The Silver Beach Institute is a new research organization working to 100x the number of top-tier scientists in the world. We initially ran small, intensive, web-based research courses during which 18-20 students with diverse backgrounds and varying levels of experience were immersed in a particular topic, engaging with both seminal and cutting-edge research work in order to start substantive projects of their own. These courses lasted between 5 and 16 weeks, and were built around semi-structured discussions led by an academic researcher or leading industry practitioner doing important work in their field. We are now working on combining this structure with a lightweight mechanism for funding new researchers with no previous published work.

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We are not a university, nor are we affiliated with any university. Students do not receive any credential, degree, or official certificate at the completion of a course. The point of our courses is to put people on the path to doing original work of their own, not to certify that they've learned facts in a curriculum.

If you have questions, feedback, or suggestions, feel free to email us at contact@silverbeach.in.

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.