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March 1, 2013

Stanford humanities and science scholars join forces for groundbreaking research on Jewish genetics

A geneticist and a Jewish studies professor develop an interdisciplinary lecture series that produces new research to be included in a scholarly volume on Jewish genetics.

By Kelsey Geiser

Steve Weitzman, professor of Jewish culture and religion, and Noah Rosenberg, associate professor of biology, have teamed up to produce the first interdisciplinary scholarly volume on Jewish genetics in the genome era. (Photo: Steve Castillo / Stanford University)

Stanford scientists have played a leading role in Jewish genetics research, with findings that have improved our understanding of traits and disease.

At the same time, Stanford professors in Jewish studies have advanced humanities scholarship about Jewish culture, history and identity.

And now, two Stanford scholars are taking advantage of this nexus of cutting-edge scientific and humanities research to push study in both academic fields further than ever before.

Steve Weitzman, director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and professor of Jewish culture and religion, and Noah Rosenberg, associate professor of biology, put aside the stereotypes of "fuzzy" humanities scholars and "techie" scientists to develop an interdisciplinary course and companion research endeavor dedicated to studying Jewish genetics.

Their jointly taught course, From Generation to Generation: The Genetics of Jewish Populations, was offered last fall. It provided the scholarship for a special issue of Human Biology, the official journal of the American Association of Anthropological Genetics. Expected to appear later this year, the volume includes contributions from a variety of scholars in humanities, social sciences and the sciences, and is the first such interdisciplinary volume on Jewish genetics published in the genomic age.

"Building bridges to genetics and biology provides a new way of attracting interest in Jewish studies and advancing Jewish studies scholarship," Weitzman said.

From an understanding of women's decisions about sperm donors in Israel to prenatal genetic diagnostic testing in the United States, the lecture series tapped into "a deep interest in the culture regarding views and interpretations of results on Jewish genetics," said Rosenberg.

The lecture series has "broader implications for Jewish identity and how people connect themselves to others, both Jews and non-Jews, and to their past," said Weitzman. "The field is grappling with dramatic changes in genetic data, and the discussion has significant implications for medicine and population genetics," Rosenberg said.

Scholars from institutions around the globe were invited to present at the series. From a professor of biblical archaeology to an anthropologist working on the culture of assisted reproduction in Israel to a physician at Rambam Medical Center in Israel, speakers blurred the lines between the humanities and the sciences.

Open to the public, the lectures were well attended by community members as well as Stanford students.

"I wanted students to see that even in a scientific topic such as genetics there are questions that are very important that can only be addressed in light of history, in light of ethics, in light of the understanding of culture," said Weitzman. "That the sense of conflict between science and the humanities is a false one and that these different fields really do have things to say to each other."

In organizing the lectures, Rosenberg and Weitzman were particularly concerned that topics reflect the blinding pace of genetics research that began 10 years ago with the completion of the Human Genome Project.

"There have been so many advances in genetics in the last decade that the research that was presented in this class is profoundly different from what existed previously," said Rosenberg.

From ancient Jerusalem to prenatal testing

To give the audience a sense of the importance of the study of genetics for understanding the history of populations, Stanford biology Professor Marcus Feldman began the series with a discussion of the genetics and genealogical lineages of the ancient Samaritan people, a population mentioned in the Bible and represented now by only several hundred individuals.

"We have a subject where a scientific topic engages very directly with aspects of culture and history, " said Rosenberg. "The genetics informs ways of thinking about Jewish culture and identity, and the cultural and historical topics inform the interpretation of the genetic data."

Associate Professor Roy King of Stanford's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Aaron Brody of the Badè Museum of Biblical Archaeology combined their expertise in a lecture discussing how genetics may be used to buttress what we can learn from archeology.

One speaker, Professor Arno Motulsky in the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, had his personal biography entwined with the course material. Having spent his early childhood in Nazi Germany, Motulsky lived through victimization by racial ideology and abuse from race science and eugenics, escaping to the United States and becoming a distinguished medical geneticist and expert on Jewish genetic diseases.

The true tension between the scientific and cultural approaches manifested itself in the lecture on Tay-Sachs disease given by Shelley Reuter, associate professor of sociology at Concordia University. Her lecture looked at the disease from a critical discourse perspective, taking issue with the portrayal of the disease in the early medical literature.

"That was part of the goal of the series, to get people who think about the subject in one way, a scientific way or a non-scientific way, to think about it in other ways," said Weitzman.

This research exposed in the series, however, is in some ways just the beginning. Weitzman believes that there are many more questions we must ask: What are the ethical implications of this kind of research? How is this research being invoked in certain Jewish communities and in Israel? Why are people fascinated in this topic?

And above all, what are the next steps?

Weitzman and Rosenberg hope to capitalize on the success of the series to expand the connection they have developed between genetics and Jewish studies. In the future, the professors hope to branch out into more research projects, graduate fellowships, undergraduate research and more courses and public lectures.

"Our speakers found connections between the questions that geneticists are asking now and questions that have been posed in other fields over decades and even centuries," Rosenberg said. "We don't expect the interest in these topics to go away anytime soon."

Kelsey Geiser is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.

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Contact

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu

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