Friday, January 15, 2010

Calling from the North

I've been in Helsinki, Finland, this week to help teach a week-long minicourse in human genetics, to a variety of graduate students and researchers in human genetics, from Finland and several other countries. Several sponsors have supported this, which is the fifth time the course has been offered (also in Madrid and Maracaibo, as well as 2 times before here in Helsinki).

I co-teach this with Joe Terwilliger, a long-term collaborator, Markus Perola, a Finnish clinician and biomedical geneticist, and Patrik Magnusson, a Swedish genetic epidemiologist. Our purpose is to introduce students to the issues, and ways to think about what we know and how we know it, in human genetics today. We cover subjects like evolutionary genetics, the meaning, use, and value of GWAS approaches, and things of that sort. This is not a methods how-to course, but an attempt to stimulate the students to think as much out of the box, or at least be aware of the epistemological issues as they apply to this challenging field, as we can.

It's a very advanced place, Finland, and quite beautiful and pleasant even in the dead of winter. I feel good about the level of ability and curiosity of the students.  They are alert, thoughtful, curious, and attentive, and it has been a pleasure to help teach this course. As almost always happens in such trips, my own thinking has been affected, and I've learned of some hot new references to look at when I get back next week. I've also heard about unpublished mapping results that help identify some new risk factors but mainly show more about the nature of complex causation.  Basically, it seems we are understanding the nature of life and complex causation, and even though few miracle genes have been found, there are some ideas simmering about how to look at the  aggregate of small-effect genes. I'll have more to say about this next week.

Human genetics is as lively and vibrant as it has ever been. I have my disagreements about the stress and cost of some of this research, as Anne and I have blogged about in the past. But there is clearly a feeling of excitement, that much is being learned--even if magical cures aren't as near as is often promised.

No comments: