This past Thursday, the Columbia School of Nursing’s Center for Research on People of Color (CRPC) hosted Dr. Amadou Gaye, the second speaker of their Anti-Racism Speaker Series, to discuss his research on the relationship between adverse social conditions and gene expression.

On Thursday, February 25th, Columbia School of Nursing’s Center for Research on People of Color (CRPC) invited Dr. Gaye, a staff scientist at the National Human Genome Research, to present his research: “Omics Study of Social Disadvantage in African Americans: How Adverse Conditions Get Under the Skin.”

Dr. Gaye started the presentation by sharing his personal journey that led him to his career in genetic epidemiology, a path that he emphasized to be “not a straight line.” Born in Senegal, he dropped out of the prestigious Cheikh Anta Diop University after realizing he was not interested in studying the medical sciences. He later moved to Germany to study biotechnology and realized his preference for data analysis over wet labs. Soon after, Dr. Gaye decided to advance his education and received his master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Leicester. He then pursued genetic epidemiological research at the University of Bristol before working at his current position at the National Institute of Health.

It is well known that socioeconomic status is linked to health, but Dr. Gaye’s research focuses on the specific mechanisms of this relationship in gene expression. His research seeks to answer the questions: how are stressors from adverse socioeconomic conditions internalized in the body? How are they manifested as perturbations in the biological system? His research aims to “further elucidate the neurobehavioral and molecular biomarkers that may mediate the interplay between the social disadvantage and psychological stress in a sample of African-Americans.”

Dr. Gaye shared the pushback he received from a reviewer who believed that the instruments used were prone to bias since questionnaires asked for participants to report their own depression and stress levels. Dr. Gaye, however, explained that he believes the perception of one’s immediate environment is important to understanding their health. Subjectivity, in this sense, is a component of this research.

To find the relationship between social disadvantage and the expression of some genes and the relationship of those genes to stress and depression, Dr. Gaye used machine learning programming (Random Forest) because it allows for the number of predictors (the genes) to be much larger than the number of variables (social stressors), unlike traditional regression models. Dr. Gaye found that out of a set of 191 genes, 28 genes can predict depression, 36 can predict perceived stress, and 25 can predict financial stress. There is one gene that lies in all three sets of predictors. There are 44 genes linked to social disadvantage with an AUC value of 0.94, which means that the linkage with social disadvantage is very strong.

Dr. Gaye also shared with us the ongoing methylation component of his research. DNA methylation is a process in which methyl groups are added to gene sequences to repress transcription. Dr. Gaye found 1108 methylation sites associated with 79 of the 191 genes.

My lack of familiarity with data analysis and gene expression, combined with the recurring audio issues, made the talk quite hard to follow. I wished the discussion of the results could have been more simplified for a layman like me. I would have appreciated more time devoted to the implications of the results and less on the methodology of the research. Nevertheless, I found Dr. Gaye’s presentation illuminating and I was surprised to see the strength of the correlation between some genes and the “Social Advantage” variable. I left the talk with a deeper awareness of the connection between the social environment and health, and more clarity on the influence of social stressors on gene expression.

Header via Center for Research on People of Color