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Dornsife's Michael Yudell Wins American Public Health Award for Book Challenging the Use of Race in Genetic Research

Calls for Phasing Out Racial Terminology in the Biological Sciences

Photo of Michael Yudell, second from right, wins American Public Health Award for Book Challenging the Use of Race in Genetic Research

November 17, 2016

When Dornsife School of Public Health faculty member Michael Yudell’s book, Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the Twentieth Century (Columbia University Press), was released in 2014, arguments about the use of race in genetics research continued to be unresolved. Conversations were stuck on what to do to move forward, knowing that race remains a problematic variable for use in genetic research.

Now that is changing. Yudell’s thesis in the book has helped to spark a robust conversation about a persistent paradox in science: a recognition that race can be a useful method to characterize human diversity, yet race is also an imprecise proxy for measuring that diversity.

While the book pointed out many of the historical elements that formed and preserved ideas of race, particularly in science, Yudell, associate professor and chair of Community Health and Prevention in the Dornsife School of Public Health, wanted to start working to address the issues and take action. He believes that historical racial categories that are treated as natural and infused with notions of superiority and inferiority have no place in biology. 

Teaming up with University of Pennsylvania’s Dorothy Roberts and Sarah Tishkoff, and the American Museum of Natural History’s Robert DeSalle, Yudell co-authored a paper published in Science earlier this year. The group called for colleagues to stop using racial categories when researching and studying human genetics.

“We believe that genetics research continues to operate in a paradox: The belief that race is a tool to elucidate human genetic diversity and believing that race is a poorly defined marker of that diversity and an imprecise proxy for the relation between ancestry and genetics,” said Yudell at the time. “It is time that scientists find a way to resolve this to improve the study of human diversity.”

The paper prompted a flurry of response. Yudell and Tishkoff were invited to speak at the National Academies of Science’s Board on Life Sciences in May. They are in continued talks with the organization about ways to improve how populations are studied at the genetic level.

Last month, the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute and National Institute for Minority Health teamed up to convene a two-day roundtable discussion on this topic, where participants, including Yudell, shared recommendations about the use of race in science for the NIH teams to evaluate. 

On November 1, Yudell received the Arthur J. Viseltear Prize at the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting in Denver. The award is given to historians who have made outstanding contributions to the history of public health. At the ceremony, Yudell gave a lecture on his book, one of many talks he’s been giving across the country.
“It’s exciting that the NIH is considering these issues, and the National Academies of Medicine is talking about potential next steps,” said Yudell. “I’m happy to play whatever role we can in pushing these ideas forward.”

This week, Yudell gave talks to anthropologists, medical ethicists and others at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s slated to give a talk to the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program at Penn next month.

Follow Dr. Yudell on twitter at @PublicsHealth and @DrexelPubHealth for updates and information on upcoming talks.