Teaching genetics with an anti-racist lens

A. Kelly Lane and colleagues work to evaluate whether tweaking genetic units can dispel myths that are the basis of racist beliefs.
June 28, 2022

It is impossible to make it through an introductory biology course without a genetics unit. Genetic structures are foundational to life and at the heart of numerous groundbreaking discoveries in medicine, agriculture, and beyond.

Despite positive impacts, the field of genetics also continues to grapple with a dark and racist history, and, within some circles, present. Eugenics is a scientifically inaccurate and racist theory that argues that selective breeding would improve the human race at large. Proponents of the theory misused—and continue to misuse—genetic principles to support their beliefs. 

While genes help dictate skin tone, skin tone does not decide race. Race is a social construct, not a biological one. Additionally, multiple genes contribute to skin tone which fuels variation. In no way does skin tone dictate whether someone will excel at a sport or hold certain beliefs, an argument held by those who believe race is biological, also known as racial essentialism.

“While not all people who have these [essentialist] beliefs are racists, it’s very difficult to be a racist without having some of these beliefs,” says A. Kelly Lane, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, Teaching and Learning (BTL).

Lane, along with a group of colleagues, is on a mission to dispel these racist and invalid beliefs in genetics curriculum. When the curriculum oversimplifies gene expression and describes a singular "on/off effect," students can leave with oversimplified and inaccurate views about race, sex, and gender. 

Lane joined BTL as part of the Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship Program in the summer of 2020. The program is different from typical postdoc positions, as scholars don’t join an existing lab. With the support of a mentor, Lane was given the freedom to shape her research directions and strike up new collaborations on the fly.

The idea for the proposal came up in a somewhat unlikely place—a departmental meeting. BTL department meetings are open to grad students, postdocs, and staff who all meet and spend quite a bit of time talking about teaching. During meetings, attendees often share stories of success and challenges in the classroom and workshop new ideas.

During one meeting back in May 2021, Kristina Prescott, a teaching assistant professor, shared changes she made to the curriculum of a non-majors human biology course. The course includes some genetics concepts that were in need of updates. Prescott and a colleague worked on changing the curriculum in order to dispel racist essentialist beliefs.

“We want students to understand that we are all more alike than different, and although race can be an important part of a person's social identity, it is not biologically based,” says Prescott.

One example of the curriculum changes involves shifting away from specific examples and instead giving students a big picture of human diversity. Through this change and a series of others, instructors want students to realize that race is not an accurate—or helpful for that matter—way to describe human diversity.

At the conclusion of the presentation, Prescott talked about next steps. She wanted help assessing the changes they implemented in the classroom. Lane’s wheels started turning and so did Katherine Furniss’s, a teaching assistant professor in BTL. 

Furniss, Lane, and Prescott went to work finding an assessment that evaluated both genetic content knowledge and beliefs about racial essentialism that could be easily used in undergraduate biology courses. But this tool didn’t exist. So they wrote an NSF proposal for support to develop one that ultimately got funded.

Work is now underway thanks to the grant and Lane is hopeful changes will come. “I'm hopeful that we're going to create a tool that's going to make it a little bit easier for a faculty member to try and decide what they want to change in their classroom,” says Lane. —Claire Wilson