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Genes for the Culture – An Interview with Dr. Janina Jeff

A part of NSGC’s “Genetic Variation” blog series that aims to give a voice to diverse members of the genetic counseling community. Genetic variation refers to diversity in gene frequencies and can also relate to differences between individuals or populations.

To kick off this series, we’ll start with an interview with Dr. Janina Jeff. She’s known to her followers as the “Geneti-SIS” is the creator and host of “In Those Genes”, a hip-hop inspired podcast that uses genetics to uncover the lost identities of African descended Americans through the lens of Black Culture. Dr. Jeff was the first African-American to receive a PhD in Human Genetics from Vanderbilt University and she is a TEDx speaker, writer, STEAMinist, collegiate lecturer and hip-hop enthusiast. In July, Dr. Jeff was awarded the 2020 Advocacy Award by the American Society of Human Genetics and just this month, “In Those Genes” was awarded the 2020 Third Coast/Richard H Driehaus Foundation Competition International Impact award.

NSGC Past-President and Personalized Medicine Expert Erica Ramos interviewed Dr. Jeff regarding her role as an African-American scientist in a field dominated by white males and the goals she has for the “In Those Genes” podcast.  

How did your podcast “In Those Genes” get started?

It happened organically. People wanted to have representation at their career panels or career days - they wanted students or prospective employees to see someone that was black, female and a scientist, and unfortunately, there aren’t many of us. Most people found me through Google, and that was the start of me being a science communicator.

Then, in 2018, Spotify put out an announcement that they were starting an initiative called “Sound Up Boot Camp,” aimed at promoting women of color in podcasting because podcasts are very, very white and very male dominated. Spotify put this ad out and Black Twitter did what Black Twitter did and spread it like wildfire. I applied because a friend told me about it and said I should do one on genetics. I thought, ‘I listen to podcasts, but I don't have any experience in podcasting. And I don’t really have a formulated idea of what the podcast would be.’ I went to bed that night and it kept me up, and by the next morning I thought, “OK, I can do this, I can have a podcast.”

Out of 18,000 people who applied, Dr. Jeff was selected as one of the final three who each received $10,000 to do their podcast pilot.

The premise of the podcast was to discuss genetics, but through the lens of hip hop and Black culture. In the Black community, hip hop has kind of been a key aspect of the modern Black experience in America and I would say hip hop has become a part of American culture in general.

Your podcast covers many topics related to genetics, like ancestry DNA testing, data privacy and research, that impact the Black community differently. What are the questions you get asked most from your listeners and what question do you wish people asked more?

The biggest question I get is “What are they [DNA companies] going to do with my data?” which signifies that there’s a lack of trust even when you're paying for a product. The other big question I get about commercial or consumer genetic testing is, “Can I believe this?”, “Is it is it accurate?” and “Is it real?” I like the question of “Is it accurate?”

The question I wish more people asked me, but also asked themselves, is what is the value of ancestry testing?  I'm always curious to hear what other people's values are, because if we go into different countries, like Ghana or Nigeria or countries on the Gold Coast of Africa, there is no interest in ancestry testing. It's a very American thing to engage with -- ancestry testing for the purposes of seeking identity which is due to the lack of information as a result of slavery.

I wish more of us would ask the question of “Why am I seeking identity?” and “What benefit does it serve me?” I think a lot of times the benefit is not really well-communicated with consumer genetic testing. It's more of a curiosity and I think it's a huge privilege to even have the curiosity.

I really wish more people generally, not just Black people, wanted to know more about how genetic testing could really advance Black futures, so I talk a lot about Afrofuturism in the context of the genome. And I really want people, specifically scientists who want to do this research, to start thinking about how the genome can promote our futures, like medical futures and preventing disease. But also, specifically Black people to start thinking about how can we start to think about our genomes as an asset that we could profit from? Not to sound capitalistic here, because I'm not, but how can we ever get to equality, not even just in medicine, but in general if we don't address that? This resource we have is so valuable, how can we leverage it to eradicate some other issues that are in the Black community?

Several of your recent episodes have expanded into other areas of health impacting the Black community, including COVID-19 and vaccines. Was that always your intent?

No! The entire season had been recorded before we aired, and we had no intentions of changing things. And then COVID-19 happened and people were flooding me with messages on social media. It started with the myth that Black people couldn’t get COVID-19, and I thought, “No, we can't let people believe that, that would be horrible!”

My team and I always listen to our instincts and our instinct was to serve our community. There was a huge need to speak to the topics that were happening around COVID-19 from a Black perspective so we put together a COVID-19 episode (“Dat Rona") in three days. We took everyone's questions from the community and, along with one of my really good friends, Dr. Ashira Blazer, who is a rheumatologist and knows all about immunology, we answered them throughout the podcast. We also incorporated our segment called “Genes for the Culture” and we broke down what the COVID-19 virus is, what vaccines are and how they work, gene therapy and why viruses are good.

This may have not been Dr. Jeff’s original plan, but her instinct to focus on what was relevant to the Black community led to this episode being awarded the 2020 Third Coast/Richard H Driehaus Foundation Competition International Impact award. She has continued to feature COVID-19 updates in the episodes following “Dat Rona,” including a special episode about “Trusting Vaccines While Black.” Dr. Jeff has more big plans for Season Two.

Season Two will be centered all around a central question – is it really genetic? We’ll expand on the “Black Don’t Crack” episode that we talked about in season one and will really dive into the genetics of aging. We'll also be diving deep into other topics often associated with Blackness and genetics like trauma and intelligence. We'll be using the question “is this genetic?” to understanding the research that exists right now, all around things that most people in the Black community believe are genetic.

As we wrap up, is there anything that jumps out at you or that you want to share about your experiences over the past year?

I didn't realize genetics is really storytelling and storytelling is directly connected to podcasting. Genetics is a story of natural selection. It's a story of evolution, and the story has all these different twists and turns. Some of it is connected with sociology and social events that have happened in the world, and some of it is not. I don't think most of the public think about their genome as a story, as a narrative.

I talk about the genome as being a book with all these different factors. For example, we talk about Black women's hair and how different women have different hair textures. For a lot of my life (and I know other Black women are with me on this), I hated my hair texture. But then when I learned about why we have tightly-coiled hair that is relatively short, and understood that my ancestors lived near the equator and that having long hair would be kind of problematic without air conditioning. So it really it’s like, wow, all these things I've been taught to hate about my hair, about my skin color, about my wide nose – they actually are beautiful stories about how my ancestors needed those things to survive in order for me to get here. That is a beautiful thing that I had actually never connected before.

How beautiful it would be to use science to take those things we've been taught not to like and to tell a really positive story of why we should love it – not just like it – why we should love it and how without it we wouldn't be here? As a scientist and podcaster — that is my ultimate goal.

To follow Dr. Jeff’s storytelling, you can find her on Twitter and Instagram, listen to the award-winning “In Those Genes” podcast on all major streaming platforms, and support the podcast on Patreon.

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