Dinner a la IGSP: Wine, salad and the human genome top the menu

Tucked away in the intimate private dining room of the posh Parizade Cafe, a group of what first appeared to be the most unlikely combination of selected professors and students came together Monday evening to wine, dine and discuss genomics.

Initiated by Dr. Huntington Willard, director of the Institute for Genome Science and Policy, Monday's dinner forum was the first of what Willard hopes to be a monthly series, designed to create dialogue about the implications of genomics across disciplines, one of the IGSP's goals.

Just over 25 Duke faculty members and students ranging from the School of Medicine to the Fuqua School of Business and the University's English department talked into the night about advances in genome research, how the general public perceives and interprets these scientific achievements and the way in which intellectual property rights and private industry factors into genome science and policy.

"This is the IGSP in action. Here is a chance to create a sense of community and an opportunity to develop linkages between disciplines," Willard said as the last of the guests trickled into the dining room. "If you have dinner with people you know, then I have failed tonight."

Of course, the dinner forum was far from a failure. Clustered in small groups with wine and appetizers in hand, professors and students who never knew each other before the evening began, stood around and started to exchange their varying perspective on genomics with one another.

Phrases such as, 'Can you please help me understand how such-and-such works,' floated across the room. "I didn't realize that!" exclaimed Henry Sauermann, a doctoral candidate at Fuqua while listening to a surgeon explain a new genomic tool that has the potential to aid in cancer research.

Eventually, the guests found their seats and settled in to order their meals, while Willard introduced Dr. Andy Berchuk, the first of two speakers to address how their work involves genomics. As a clinical scientist interested in the genetic aspect of ovarian cancer, he is currently involved in a 48-county regional study of 650 women to find genetic variances in their DNA that makes some women more susceptible to cancer.

"We're at the dawn of molecular medicine that will change the face of medicine and health," Berchuk concluded before opening the floor up for questions. "This is a new paradigm in medicine."

As the salads arrived to the tables, Associate Professor of English Priscilla Wald, the other speaker for the evening, talked about her interest in how people perceive the genome sciences and how these perceptions determine policy. Pointing to science journalists who sensationalize their stories to boost readership and movies such as Gattaca, which she said likened genetic manipulation to "godlessness," Wald stressed the need to bridge the communication gap between scientists and the general public.

Through the main courses and the decadent deserts, Berchuk and Wald's perspectives on genomics catalyzed further discussion amid the groups of professors and students ranging from how to provide accountability between scientists and journalists to the importance of academia and industry cooperation in genomics research.

"Tonight is a throwback to the old academy when they sat around at the high table," Willard said. "This is the beginning of developing a community of scholars and students who are truly making a difference."


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