Scientist Spotlight: Georgia M. Dunston
The study of human genomics not only discredits the biological basis of our socially constructed racial categories, but also has the potential to reframe the way in which we understand human identity.
Introduction and Biography (by Jeremiah Stout)
Georgia M. Dunston is a pioneering scientist and Christian. She has spent a career performing cutting edge research in the field of human genetics and precision medicine, and she has established competitive programs for research scientists at minority institutions of higher learning. In addition to her scientific and organizational work, she has also spent time formally reflecting on the implications of the latest discoveries in human genetics for our concepts of race and ethnicity. And as a devout Christian, she has explored the questions of human identity that are raised by our rapidly increasing knowledge of the human genome.
Dr. Dunston was born in 1944 in Norfolk, Virginia and grew up in the segregated south on the cusp of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Dr. Dunston became the first member of her family to graduate from college in 1965 when she earned her BS in Biology from Norfolk State University, a historically black college. After gaining a master’s degree from Tuskegee University, another historically black college, she went on to the University of Michigan, the first predominantly white institution she had attended, where she received a PhD in Human Genetics in 1972.
Upon completion of her PhD, Dr. Dunston was recruited to the faculty of the Howard University College of Medicine (HUCM). At Howard she rose through the academic ranks to become a full professor of microbiology, to serve as chairwoman of the department of microbiology, and to become a member of the Graduate Faculty in the Department of Genetics. She served as a member of the HUCM faculty for a total of 45 years before retiring in 2017.
During her time at Howard, Dr. Dunston also took a couple of leaves to be a part of research happening at the National Institutes of Health. On one of those leaves in the mid-1990s, she was a visiting investigator with the National Human Genome Research Institute. In her time there Dr. Dunston formed a collaborative research relationship with Dr. Francis Collins, who had relocated from the University of Michigan to lead the Human Genome Project (HGP).
Dr. Dunston entered her career as a part of a new generation of black scientists charged with challenging the status quo of federally funded biomedical research happening at minority institutions. In pursuit of that challenge, she and a team of top-notch black scientists formed the National Human Genome Center (NHGC) at Howard University. In 2001, soon after the completion of the Human Genome Project, the NHGC was officially established with the mission of exploring the science and teaching the knowledge of DNA sequence variation and its interaction with the environment in the causality, treatment, and prevention of health disparities disproportionately affecting African Americans and other populations of African descent.
Because of her extensive experience using scientific research to expand our knowledge of human genetics while also exploring the implications of those discoveries, I asked Dr. Dunston to reflect on the significance of contemporary genomics for our understanding of the biological sciences, the concept of race, and human identity.
What is the importance of genomics to the biological sciences and, more broadly, to conversations on race and identity?
I perceive genomics as a paradigm shifting science, transforming not only the way we view biology but also how we do biology. I am an advocate for community education and engagement in this science for human transformation.
From my research perspective, big data science generated from sequencing the genome also profoundly challenges the validity of prevailing constructs of human populations, which partition humanity into bounded ethnic and/or racial groups. Because natural variation in the human genome is the fundamental basis of biological relationship, the genome is the determinant of individual, family, population, and human identity. Information encoded in and communicated through the genome provides the groundwork for a mental shift to whole systems thinking on biological identity and relationships.
I also believe that the science of the human genome encodes biblical truths on the laws of life revealed in and through research on human identity and population diversity. Moreover I perceive and pose the human genome as a type of “sacred text.” It is an encoded living word: a mystery that has been hidden for ages and generations, but is now revealed in ways that satisfy the human heart’s desire for answers to big questions of population health and identity. This understanding underscores the relevance of genomic science to questions of human identity.
How does genomics challenge our concept of racial categories?
In May 2003, concomitant with completion of the Human Genome Project, the NHGC convened on the campus of Howard University, a historic meeting of leading scientists in human population genetics, to discuss the significance of knowledge gained from sequencing the human genome to solving problems in society on race. Genetic data presented and discussed at this meeting unequivocally affirmed the biological truth of humanity as one incredibly diverse human race. Evidence-based genomic data show that all humans living today belong to a single species, Homo sapiens.
This is not to say the concept of race has no place in biology. Race is a term used in biological taxonomy to categorize geographically isolated breeding groups in a species. But the record of human evolutionary history indicates that human populations have never genetically diverged enough to produce any biological barriers to mating between members of different populations. Thus, while many species in the animal kingdom meet criteria for categorization into different races, human differences do not meet this taxonomic criterion.
Popular conceptualizations of human races are derived from 19th and early 20th century scientific formulations that were misinterpreted and still inform thinking on the biology of human differences. These outmoded racial categorizations of human populations based on heritable traits–skin color, features of the face, and the shape and size of the head, body, and underlying skeleton–also spawned philosophical traditions which presumed that visible traits can be used to define an individual or a population. This thinking has been used to support social conventions that foster institutional discrimination based on human biological races. However such thinking is discredited today in the light of 21st century scientific data from the HGP. Solid evidence on human evolutionary biology shows that geographic patterns of genetic variation among and between natural populations today present no major discontinuities or boundaries in the human genome that align with perceived human biological races.
What’s an example of institutional discrimination based on human biological races?
A major focus of the 2003 National Human Genome Center meeting at Howard University on human genome variation and race addressed how erroneous concepts of human races as biologically justified formed the basis of institutionalized racism associated with health disparities in both America and the global community.
In an article on “Changing the paradigm from ‘race’ to human genome variation” published in the international scientific journal Nature Genetics (Vol. 36 Number 11), I co-authored a commentary with Dr. Charmaine Royal (NHGC director of GenEthics) on how knowledge gained from the HGP and research on human genome variation increasingly challenges the applicability of the term ‘race’ in human population groups, raising questions about the validity of inferences made about ‘race’ in the biomedical and scientific literature. Despite acknowledged contradictions in contemporary science, population-based genetic variation is continually used to explain differences in health associated with race in medicine.
The time is now for a new explanatory framework and vision of humankind with different fundamental assumptions about biological relationships defining human identity and population diversity in health and disease. The importance of population variation in the genetic diagnosis, treatment, and management of complex diseases cannot be marginalized or ignored. As medicine responds to these advances by becoming increasingly customized, a more refined definition of both the individual and population is required.
How can genomics refine our definition of human identity?
As an African American human geneticist, I believe that the sequencing of the human genome and generation of haplotype maps in the first decade of the 21st century has signaled a defining moment in biology. We have new opportunities for using the tools of science in addressing daunting questions on human identity and pervasive problems of race. As a believer, I am convinced that the genome has been sequenced in our time to provide solid evidence from ‘big data science’ for this generation, who require sense-based knowledge, to believe biblical truths of our identity and genomic inheritance in relationship to ourselves, others, and our God.
For me the story of the human genome is an African one. It recounts a tale of humans that originated in Africa, migrated over the globe, and adapted to every environment encountered, all the while translating the language of life into biological terms. By examining the human genome, we encounter this incredible story that liberates us from the bondages of fear-born ignorance of the nature of human identity as one, incredibly diverse, global human genome family.
Admittedly, my perspective on genetics and human identity is not motivated by conventional mainstream conversations on human genome variation and differences, but seeks rather to reframe the discussion in ways that provoke new thinking on the emergence of the human genome as the most elegant living information and communication system known to science. I challenge us all to think about human genome variation as a complex hierarchical biosystem that integrates and reconciles the full spectrum of human diversity, individually and collectively, in whole persons uniquely equipped and purposed for life on earth and in the universe.
Any final thoughts?
In recognition of Black History Month, I want to conclude this personal perspective with the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“I have a dream that my four little children, will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
The science of the human genome beautifully reflects Biblical themes of human identity. It affirms our belief in a human population that is incredibly diverse, yet undoubtedly one: created in God’s image, redeemed by Jesus’ blood, and united by the Holy Spirit in the renewing and reconciling work of the Church.
About the authors
Georgia M. Dunston
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