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American Society of Human Genetics honors College of Medicine postdoc’s research

The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) has selected Dr. Fang Chen, a Penn State Biostatistics postdoctoral researcher, as a semifinalist for the 2020 Charles J. Epstein Trainee Awards for Excellence in Human Genetics Research.

The highly-sought awards, named after the late ASHG president, recognize outstanding research conducted by predoctoral and postdoctoral trainees. Chen, who is one of 60 semifinalists, was selected out of a pool of more than 430 applicants. This year’s awards total $70,000.

Chen’s research focuses on uncovering molecular and biological pathways related to smoking addiction in diverse populations. Cigarette smoking is a major heritable risk factor for human diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and asthma. The availability of large datasets enabled a breakthrough in the genetics of smoking addiction. However, current genetic studies are primarily limited to samples of European ancestry and greatly lacking in much-needed diversity. The effect of genetic effects is known to differ between ancestries, and genetic discoveries made in Caucasian populations may not translate to non-Caucasian populations.

To address this gap, researchers aggregated a genome-wide association study dataset from 1.2 million individuals, and further augmented it with a high-quality sequence dataset of 150,000 individuals of diverse ancestries in U.S. populations from the Trans-Omics Precision Medicine (TOPMed) project.

“Trans-ethnic studies have been invaluable in explaining the heritability of complex traits and gaining biological insights,” said Chen. “I am happy to contribute to the community by proposing a new method to utilize these rapidly growing datasets from diverse populations.”

To analyze this unprecedented dataset from diverse populations, Chen developed a novel method to integrate these trans-ethnic genetic studies with a functional genomic dataset, which properly accounted for the genetic effect differences between ancestries and substantially improves the power of discovery.

According to his adviser, Chen’s research not only promotes inclusivity in the study of human genetics, but provides insight into addressing health disparities. “Our research group pioneered in using big datasets to understand human addiction behavior. Now, our group leads the way to expanding these research to diverse worldwide populations,” said Dajiang Liu, associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences (Division of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics) at Penn State College of Medicine. “Results from these studies will be key to understanding the smoking behavior in under-represented U.S. and world populations.”

Due to COVID-19, ASHG’s 70th annual meeting will be held online from Oct. 27 to 30. Before the event, a program committee will narrow down the pool to 18 finalists. The finalists will present their research to a panel of judges during the virtual meeting. Six winners will be named, and each will receive a cash award.

This is not the first time that Penn State and the College of Medicine have been recognized for this honor. In 2012, Zurab Tsetskhladze was a postdoctoral finalist. In 2017, Anurag Verma was a predoctoral finalist, while Yu Jiang and Lucilla Pizzo were named predoctoral semifinalists. Jiang was named a predoctoral semifinalist for the award again in 2018.

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