News Release

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

NIH launches first online genetics course for social and behavioral scientists

A new genetics educational program will provide social and behavioral scientists with sufficient genetics background to allow them to engage effectively in interdisciplinary research with genetics researchers. The Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health, partnered with the National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics to create the free, Web-based project.

Increasingly, scientific outcomes are not fully explained by genetic, environmental, or social factors alone or as independent contributors. Instead, public health advances and scientific breakthroughs tend to rely on transdisciplinary teams of social scientists and genetic researchers. This creates a greater need among social and behavioral scientists for an understanding of the complexity of the genetic contribution to health, disease and behaviors.

The overarching goal of the course, Genetics and Social Science: Expanding Transdisciplinary Research, is to improve these scientists’ genetics literacy in several key areas, broadly grouped into conversation, imagination, evaluation and integration. The course will provide sufficient knowledge to support the integration of genetics concepts in the behavioral or social scientist’s own research and will allow for collaborative studies with geneticists. The course will provide users with the ability to conceive of progressive but feasible studies. Scientists will develop the skills necessary to assess genetics research for validity and utility.

Because behavioral and social scientists have a very large breadth of expertise, the course focuses on core concepts that are applicable to most scientists, no matter where they are in their careers or training. The course was developed by an advisory committee with experts from a wide range of areas, including addiction, psychiatry, anthropology, obesity, clinical genetics, and race and ethnicity. The core areas are: variation (e.g., sources of genetic variation, biological pathways); gene-environment interaction; population issues; clinical issues (e.g., family history) and research issues (e.g., data sharing). The course was developed based on adult learning theory, which focuses on active learning and self-direction, allowing for users to choose their own path through the interactive content.

"We're very pleased with the pilot program," said Dr. Robert M. Kaplan, director of OBSSR. "It's the first of its kind, and it fills a need for this type of training and education which has existed for some time in the research community."

Scientists using the online course can choose to learn through four case studies — tobacco, obesity, major depression, and breast cancer. The interactive case studies build the scientist's knowledge and comfort with the concepts in a stepwise manner. The general structure for each case study includes a statement of the problem, an interactive review of the pertinent literature, a discussion of the approach to research in this area, exercises to develop the next research question, opportunities for collaboration and a discussion of the clinical implications. Each case study will link to specific core concepts (variation, gene-environment interaction, population, clinical or research issues) to allow the user to determine his or her learning style.

Please visit to experience the online course, Genetics and Social Science: Expanding Transdisciplinary Research.

The Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) opened officially on July 1, 1995. The U.S. Congress established the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) in the Office of the Director, NIH, in recognition of the key role that behavioral and social factors often play in illness and health. The OBSSR mission is to stimulate behavioral and social sciences research throughout NIH and to integrate these areas of research more fully into others of the NIH health research enterprise, thereby improving our understanding, treatment, and prevention of disease. For more information, please visit

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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