It’s Written in Our Genes – or is it? Jehannine Austin joins Real Scientists

Happy New Year, Real Scientists community! We hope 2016 brings you success and happiness.


Huge thanks to Amanda Glaze for ringing in the New Year.  We now head over to Canada, to meet our next curator, Associate Professor Jehannine Austin photos 020 copy(@j9_austin), Departments of Psychiatry and Medical Genetics, University of British Columbia. Jehannine trained in biochemistry before pursuing a PhD in genetics, before ending up in genetic counselling. We asked Jehannine our usual questions, here she is in her own words.


Well, becoming a professor was an accident! after my Biochem BSc I did a PhD in human neuropsychiatric genetics thinking I might be able to get a more directly clinical slant to my work. It wasn’t possible and my desire to be involved at the “people end of things” increased, so after my PhD I undertook an MSc in genetic counseling. When I graduated from that, I thought I wanted to be a clinical genetic counsellor, helping patients to understand what we know from research about the causes of illness. But I wanted to provide genetic counselling specifically for people with psychiatric illnesses, and when I graduated with my genetic counselling MSc, no one was doing that yet. And nobody would hire me to do it because they said “there is no evidence that people want psychiatric genetic counseling, and even if they do want it, there is no evidence that it is helpful”. So I ended up doing research addressing the fundamental questions of whether anyone would want psychiatric genetic Counseling, and if it could be helpful.


Along the way, I discovered that being a professor was a perfect fit for me. I love that it allows me to be really creative intellectually, and that I can help my trainees grow and learn. I love that the work we are doing as a team is meaningful and is directly aimed at helping people.


I am leading a number of research studies, all of which aim to use what we know from genetic research to help make things better for people who live with psychiatric disorders and their families. For example, we are studying whether particular genetic variations – in combination with specific environmental factors – make some women more likely to develop postpartum depression, and we are studying the effects of genetic counseling for people with psychiatric disorders and their families.


Our genes have an important influence on our health. Figuring out how to use what we know about how genes influence human health conditions to effectively help the people who live with these conditions is one of the most important issues in medicine today, and has been since the initiation of the human genome project! My focus on psychiatric disorders in particular is important because these disorders are really common, and they are associated with enormous personal and economic burden, and profound stigma. But people with these conditions can lead productive fulfilling lives and recovery is possible – my work is about using what we know about genetics of psychiatric disorders to help with this! I am currently president of the national society of genetic counselors (I just started on Jan 1).


I really enjoy crossfit, scuba diving, snowboarding, reading, and everything about food – getting it (from the farmers’ market, foraging mushrooms or catching seafood), cooking it, and eating it.


Ideal Day Off: Right now, after the holiday season, it feels like something as simple as waking up with coffee in bed with my partner and cats. Spending the day hanging out, reading, perhaps watching a movie, going out for a walk and cooking and eating together.


Please welcome Jehannine to Real Scientists!

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