In June 2013 edition of Race and Social Problems journal, we published this review article. I think, for anthropologists who have a training in genetics, it is an interesting direction that we should explore more. When I was almost done with my dissertation work, I began to think what I could do after I got my degree. I was dissatisfied with anthropological genetics. Although I was excited to investigate human genetic variation and evolution and had fun learning and teaching (I am still interesting in these topic and continue to explore), I felt “so what?” I understand the importance of understanding migration history and genetic variation in the world, but I felt that anthropologists and many people, mostly wealthy people, are interested in human past and variation mostly only for their intellectual interests. Who really care about our findings? Are they really useful knowledge?
Then, I began thinking about using anthropological perspectives and methods to help other people. I contacted my current mentor, Dr. Rick Kittles, to see if I could do genetic research on health disparities. I learnt genetic epidemiology, a study of roles of genetics in determining or influencing disease risk in families or populations. In the genetic epidemiology, a lot of population genetics knowledge and methods are applied to the basic epidemiological research design. More recently, genetic epidemiologists are showing interests in gene and environment interactions. Here, environment refers to lifestyle and socio-cultural factors. Gene and environmental interactions is basically what anthropologists call “bio-cultural perspective,” but genetic epidemiologists think more statistically.
In the U.S., we see a great racial health disparities. Differences in access to health care and health screen can explain a part of health disparities, but there are more complex, genetic, biological, and socio-cultural factors that are intertwined with ‘race.’ Anthropologists are trained to understand this complex relationship. We can bring different insights in the genetic research of health disparities from scientists who were trained in other fields, and we can contribute to biomedical science in unique ways.