In 1994, extremist Hutus slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the small east African country of Rwanda in the span of just 100 days. But the effects of this genocide would last much longer–manifested in the genes of survivors.
Epigenetics is the study of how environmental and external factors can influence how our genes are activated or deactivated. Evidence from animal models shows that some of these epigenetic changes can be passed down to future generations.
Monica Uddin (CGRH), an associate professor of psychology, is interested in studying the “transgenerational transmission” of psychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In past studies, researchers observed epigenetic changes in the genes related to stress response in offspring who were in utero during the genocide. Her research would also look at their younger siblings to begin to gauge how long this epigenetic manifestation can last.
Uddin’s work focuses on the molecular underpinnings of stress-related disorders, particularly PTSD, which is characterized by a constellation of symptoms that occurs following a traumatic event (i.e. perceiving your life being threatened or witnessing someone else’s life being threatened).
Using data from the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study, she investigates what biomarkers are associated with increased risk for or resilience against PTSD in a population-based sample. That way, doctors working without a rich history of their patients’ lived experiences can identify people who may benefit from early intervention.
“When you can go out in a city like Detroit, and collect biospecimens as well as very rich phenotypic data, and pair the two, that can tell us a lot about the way we interact with the world and the impact the world has on us,” said Uddin. “For me, the value of my work is an improved understanding of the way biologically, and more specifically genomically, how our experiences in the world are reflected back in our genomic makeup; the aspects of our genome that control the way our genes are expressed.”
Uddin joined the University of Illinois in 2014. Today she is a member of the newly formed Computing Genomes for Reproductive Health (CGRH) research theme, led by her spouse Derek Wildman.
“When I visited, it was clear to me that there was an institutional will to do interdisciplinary work that was more than just lip service,” she said. “Here I met people who really seemed to have the will and the way to make it happen. We are situated in the middle of a corn field but we aren’t working in silos.”
Uddin earned her bachelor’s degree in human biology from Stanford University, and went on to earn her doctorate in anthropology from New York University.
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology website.