Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mask of Genetics

Genetics is a mysterious and complex realm, a field that frustrates and scares many. I've never explicitly explained why genetics is a field that fascinates me and motivates me. If you told me 4-5 years ago that I'd be so interested in genetics now I might've laughed at you. If you told me that I'd be wearing my Mask of Genetics now I might scoff at the thought. Why then is it such a focus of mine? Truth be told, I kind of "fell" into this field of interest and here's how it began.

I did a lot of research in undergrad. I first worked in a pharmacology lab that focused on the Ras oncogene (genes that are over-expressed in cancer) pathway - in particular its role in neurofibromatosis and breast cancer. Then I worked in a human genetics lab on genetic deafness. With some genetics research under my belt, I had a decent grounding before I even took the intro to genetics course. I continued in my one-year foray into grad school by working in a colorectal genetic epidemiology lab.

Also in undergrad, genetics was emphasized in many of my biology courses. It was taught as being the "thread" that united and wove through all of biology, and all of life. Through genetics we can better understand evolution, development, and disease. It helps to connect things such that things that wouldn't otherwise make sense starts to make sense. It's not perfect (is anything?) but it gets the point across pretty well.

Evolution Class
Mask of Biology I
Mask of Biology II

I then began to pursue my interest in genetics further, in grad school. I took several courses with genetics as the focus - how genetics was utilized in public health, how the public views genetics, how physicians view genetics, how med school education shies away from genetics and how this can be improved, etc. My friend, AG-F, is a genetic counseling student. So having her perspective had a huge impact on me.

At this time, with the more I learned about genetic diseases and cancer genetics, it began to become a bit more "real." I had a friend whose cousin had/has colorectal cancer in his early 20s. And towards the end of the semester my friend, RZ-F, calls me to tell me someone who used to live in her hall sophomore year died of colorectal cancer. At age 22. I had vaguely known him. Something like this was obviously genetic in nature. In fact, with my (public heath) knowledge I could diagnose that without even having to think. How could it have been missed? How could his doctor(s) not notice? Did they not take an accurate and detail family history? Was he adopted? So many questions, so many frustrations that I could know "so much" and be able to do absolutely nothing.

Apparently genetics is something most physicians avoid or forget easily (or never learned it well in the first place). As such, genetic conditions are often missed or misdiagnosed. I had endeavored then, as I had all semester long, to continue to teach my undergrad students about genetics with a health "twist" so that even if they never take a genetics course again, it lingers in the back of their mind. The least I could do (at that point) was educate the generation or two of potential physicians and researchers after me about the emerging importance of genetics in health and medicine.

Just Gotta Press On
Too Epic
Mask of Teaching

Perhaps above all, genetics holds this kind of awe and mysticism for me. It's difficult to explain, but there's something to be said for genetics to be a literal and metaphorical link between all people and all organisms. That we share over 99% of our DNA with the person next to us, that we share the same building blocks as the food we eat, as the diseases that make us sick, as the grass and the trees and the animals. And DNA operates without consciousness, it just continues to work almost flawlessly every second of every minute of every hour of every day.

Life is for the Living
Masks of Sexuality I
The "Gay Gene" Part I
The "Gay Gene" Part II
The "Gay Gene" Part III

Hopefully after this one would have a clearer view of my Mask of Genetics. If not, read the links in this post to all my past posts with a heavy genetics emphasis to them (and likely there are a couple I missed). It's clear that genetics permeates many posts in my blog and blends into several of my other Masks. I suppose in a sense it's also the "thread" that binds parts of my blog and some of my Masks together with me.


Pilgrim said...

I learned about genetic generated Lung cancer in the first place last year, that even if you smoke or are exposed to smoke, it cases not necessarily cancer, but people who never were even near a cigarette got lung cancer. For a non-medical educated person this might sound weird, but one can´t stimulate all genes to go right. We are just(still) at the beginning. Propz Pilgrim

Aek said...

Nothing's perfect. We don't have "control" over all our genes so sometimes crap still happens. But to say that we have absolutely no control over our genes is incorrect too.

I actually learned about this one gene that actually makes you less likely to get lung cancer if you smoke, which is so weird. But of course we can't "promote" smoking just in case you're one of the handful of people in the world with that gene variant. :P