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NIH launches online genetics course for social and behavioral scientists

January 4, 2012
by News release
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A new genetics educational program will provide social and behavioral scientists with sufficient genetics background to allow them to engage effectively in interdisciplinary research with genetics researchers. The Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health, partnered with the National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics to create the free, Web-based project.

Increasingly, scientific outcomes are not fully explained by genetic, environmental, or social factors alone or as independent contributors. Instead, public health advances and scientific breakthroughs tend to rely on transdisciplinary teams of social scientists and genetic researchers. This creates a greater need among social and behavioral scientists for an understanding of the complexity of the genetic contribution to health, disease and behaviors.

The overarching goal of the course, Genetics and Social Science: Expanding Transdisciplinary Research, is to improve these scientists’ genetics literacy in several key areas, broadly grouped into conversation, imagination, evaluation and integration. The course will provide sufficient knowledge to support the integration of genetics concepts in the behavioral or social scientist’s own research and will allow for collaborative studies with geneticists. The course will provide users with the ability to conceive of progressive but feasible studies. Scientists will develop the skills necessary to assess genetics research for validity and utility.

Because behavioral and social scientists have a very large breadth of expertise, the course focuses on core concepts that are applicable to most scientists, no matter where they are in their careers or training. The course was developed by an advisory committee with experts from a wide range of areas, including addiction, psychiatry, anthropology, obesity, clinical genetics, and race and ethnicity.

The core areas are: variation (e.g., sources of genetic variation, biological pathways); gene-environment interaction; population issues; clinical issues (e.g., family history) and research issues (e.g., data sharing). The course was developed based on adult learning theory, which focuses on active learning and self-direction, allowing for users to choose their own path through the interactive content.

"We're very pleased with the pilot program," said Dr. Robert M. Kaplan, director of OBSSR. "It's the first of its kind, and it fills a need for this type of training and education which has existed for some time in the research community."

Scientists using the online course can choose to learn through four case studies — tobacco, obesity, major depression, and breast cancer. The interactive case studies build the scientist's knowledge and comfort with the concepts in a stepwise manner. The general structure for each case study includes a statement of the problem, an interactive review of the pertinent literature, a discussion of the approach to research in this area, exercises to develop the next research question, opportunities for collaboration and a discussion of the clinical implications. Each case study will link to specific core concepts (variation, gene-environment interaction, population, clinical or research issues) to allow the user to determine his or her learning style.

Please visit www.nchpeg.org/bssr to experience the online course, Genetics and Social Science: Expanding Transdisciplinary Research.

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