Uncle Sam: Scientist  pg. 7

Strength in diversity

The recent revolution now driving our understanding of the genetic underpinnings of disease means that for the first time we may be able to solve some of the age-old riddles confronting portions of our population: why cystic fibrosis, for example, occurs more commonly among people of Northern European descent, why Pima Indians have such a high rate of diabetes and obesity, and why African-American women are more likely to die of breast cancer than their white counterparts.

Studies of diverse minority groups also can advance an entire field of inquiry. For example, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 cancer genes were identified by researchers trying to find out why Ashkenazi Jews had a higher risk of developing certain breast and ovarian cancers. By isolating the genetic, environmental and dietary variations among America’s ethnic subsets, scientists can better understand how certain diseases progress in the greater population.

“The idea that fundamental research can go on elsewhere, and then we can optimally translate it into our healthcare system I think is an illusion,” argues Clayton, who directs the Vanderbilt Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society.

“It’s like the way most people use a computer … They more or less can get stuff done, but because they don’t have a clue how it works, they don’t maximize the extent to which they use it.”

America’s strength lies in the diversity of its scientists, says Vanderbilt’s George Hill, Ph.D.
Photo by Dana Johnson
George Hill, Ph.D., Vanderbilt’s associate dean for Diversity in Medical Education, agrees that the United States has scarcely scratched the surface of the scientific opportunities provided by its heterogeneous population. Only he would go further: America’s strength lies in the diversity of its scientists, as well as its population.

“When you have individuals who have been affected by these diseases in our educational pipeline, when you have people of color, Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, etc., some of them are going to be interested in conducting research in these areas,” Hill argues. “When bright, inquisitive men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds attack these problems, we have a much better chance of getting to the answers that much faster.”

As powerful as these arguments may be, they may not persuade, given all of the other economic and security challenges facing the country. But wouldn’t it be interesting if the answers to our current flailing economy and inroads to world peace were found not in the halls of Congress or on the floors of Wall Street, but rather in the basic science laboratories of the United States?

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