Professor leads research on perceptions of genetic testing

Naomi Ghahrai, Contributing Writer

VCU biology professor Tricia Smith and psychology professor Chelsea Derlan are conducting research on students’ perceptions of genetic testing in collaboration with 23andMe, a California-based biotech company.

According to Antonio Regalado from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology Review, more than 12 million people analyzed their DNA with direct-to-consumer genetic testing — in other words, bypassing a health provider — in 2017. The popularity of genetic testing surged in recent years, so Smith questioned the application of genetic testing to students.

“We are trying to look at how genetic testing can affect our students in a variety of ways. One thing we are interested in is if students have personalized genetic results, will it be easier to learn genetics?” Smith said. “Everything is easier to learn if it is about you … and there has been preliminary research in the past that has confirmed this,”

A Stanford Medicine study led by researcher Keyan Salari found that in a genomics and personalized medicine course, medical and graduate students participating in personal genome testing increased their pre- to post-course scores by 31%, compared to a 1% improvement for non-genotyped students.

“The other hypothesis we are interested in is how genetic testing is perceived by the students because not everybody feels comfortable with genetic testing,” Smith said. “We also looked at the demographics of our students like race, ethnicity, and income level.”

The sample of this study included students in Smith’s class titled Senior Molecular Capstone Laboratory Experience. In the beginning of the semester, before receiving genetic testing kits, the students completed a survey asking about their demographic background, feelings about genetics, and perceptions of race and ethnicity. Moreover, the students completed a genetics exam.

Some of the students received genetic kits from 23andMe in the middle of the semester, while some of the students received the kits after the semester. The students completed a second survey measuring the same factors in the first survey in order to analyze the effects of receiving personalized genetic kits.

“Genetic databases that are consumer-driven happen to contain more data of people of European descent who have a little bit more money,” Smith said. “Since VCU has such a diverse population, we have a very even spread of demographics. It is really nice to start including a more diverse population into [genetic testing].”

Although Smith does not plan to create a personalized genetics class, she noted 23andMe’s nationwide initiative to create such courses. At Stanford University, students can genotype themselves, and use their genotypes in the genomics course. Though Smith hopes in a few years students can participate in pharmacogenetic panels in the beginning of her Biology of Drugs course.

“[My main goal of this research] is to see how personalized genetic information in the classroom facilitates learning. That is really important to me because I want students to be engaged in the classroom and to be excited about the data,” Smith said. “I want them to see how this applies to the real world…I hope they are going to be much more interested about genetics as a career path and how genetics affects health because of these results.”


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