Before he was University president, Mark Schlissel was the dean of biological sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. During his tenure there, he helped implement a controversial orientation program in which all freshmen were asked to submit a DNA sample for analysis, which were intended to then inform an orientation week discussion on genetics.

Schlissel discussed that project — and the backlash to it — during a panel held Monday as part of the University of Michigan Department of Human Genetics Seminar Series.

The orientation program, called “Bring Your Genes to Cal,” initially intended to analyze student saliva samples for three non-disease associated genes related to the ability to metabolize alcohol, lactose and folic acid. In return for submitting their samples, students were told they would have access to their own results and the opportunity to engage in broader discussion about genetics.

“We became enamored with this idea because it seemed like an early example of engaged learning,” Schlissel said on Monday. “Students could send in their own DNA sample and then be able to interact with the results of that sample directly.”

However, the California Department of Public Health said because the actual genetic testing would be conducted in a university, not a clinical lab, the tests would need to be ordered by physicians. Critics also pointed to privacy concerns and argued students were not equipped with the proper knowledge to interpret the information they’d receive about their DNA.

Schlissel said “Bring Your Genes to Cal” was designed as an alternative to reading an assigned book prior to orientation, with the intention of allowing students to more actively engage in learning about personalized medicine. By testing non-disease associated genes that commonly vary among the population, the program was not designed to provide medical information, but to involve students in the life sciences and demonstrate how genetic testing in the modern age could enhance medical treatment. In the end, the University organized campus discussions and educational sessions about genetic testing instead.

“Things got pretty heated,” Schlissel said. “Some criticisms involved groups expressing their opinions in a pretty incendiary way.”

After the lecture, a panel consisting of Schilssel, Internal Medicine Prof. David Ginsburg and Scott Roberts, an associate professor of health behavior and health education, facilitated a discussion with audience members.

“There is something to the idea that students would be more engaged,” Roberts said. “It is an interesting and personal teaching topic.”

Human Genetics Prof. Sally Camper said the purpose of the seminar was to bring awareness to genetic testing and the debate surrounding it.

“Genetic testing is being marketed directly to consumers and being used ‘recreationally’ through searches for ancestral connections etc.” Camper said in an e-mail interview. “This is relatively new and not without controversy.” 

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