By Alan Rodriguez Espinoza
Virginia Commonwealth University assistant professor Karen Chartier, Ph.D., had the honor of developing a special issue of the American Journal on Addictions, which was published in August of this year.
Chartier was invited to co-edit the journal issue in 2015 after organizing a panel in San Antonio, Texas, where the editor of the journal, Thomas Kosten, MD, was also present. The panel was hosted by the Research Society on Alcoholism and it touched heavily on the issue of underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in genetic research.
Chartier says the subject “generated a lot of interest” and inspired Kosten, Chartier and Chartier’s long-time mentors from the University of Connecticut, Victor Hesselbrock, Ph.D., and Michie Hesselbrock, Ph.D., to work together on a special issue of the American Journal on Addictions.
The intent of this special issue is to shed some light on the consequences of underrepresenting certain populations when researching alcohol use disorder.
“We’re missing out on some of the potential signals that might be related to alcohol problems if we’re really just focusing on [European American] populations,” Chartier said. “The disparity in terms of some groups participating in research potentially leads to a later disparity in terms of the application of the science in those populations.”
As contributing editors, Chartier and Victor and Michie Hesselbrock were responsible for proposing topics, recruiting researchers, and writing an introduction for the journal’s special issue, as well as a conclusion that suggested some next steps for the field of genetic research.
Along with assistant journal editor Coreen Domingo, DrPH, Chartier was also responsible for managing a lot of the behind-the-scene details to keep the special issue on track. Chartier says the idea was to “create a comprehensive group of articles” that came together to create a “more cohesive story.”
According to Chartier’s introduction to the issue, “only 19 percent of all genome-wide association studies… include non-European samples.” Chartier also points out that “indigenous populations and Latin American and African ancestry groups are particularly understudied.”
Because of these key findings, the 13 articles in the special issue focus on ensuring that minority groups are “well-represented.”
“To address this deficit in our knowledge of genetics,” Chartier said. “These papers emphasize the importance of considering the social, cultural and environmental context for engaging diverse communities in genetic research.”
The special issue also includes a commentary piece by Marcia Scott, Ph.D. from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in which Chartier says Scott “talked about the state of the science on genetics and diverse populations.”
“It was a great piece because it complemented the others,” Chartier said. “But it also talked about the history and culture, and why some groups are less represented.”
Charier points to limited funding for large genetic studies as a barrier to obtaining diverse samples. She also says minorities who have not been treated ethically in past research, with African-Americans in particular, often show a “hesitancy to participate.”
Chartier says it can be “really tricky” to discuss matters of race and ethnicity, especially as it pertains to the research of genetics.
“The genetic differences that you find across ancestry groups are really related to geography,” she said. “But we have these cultural constructs that are overlapped with geography that are very much tied to discrimination and racism, so it becomes a very complex topic to talk about.”
Aside from having diverse samples, Chartier says “there also needs to be diversity in the researchers” who are working with these complex issues in order to properly represent the minority populations being studied and to maintain an inclusive atmosphere among scientists.
“It’s important for researchers who potentially aren’t from those cultures to make sure that they are working with people in the community,” Chartier said. “To make sure they’re approaching people in a respectful way and they’re taking their concerns into consideration in the absence of having that cultural understanding themselves.”
Prior to exploring the issue of racial and ethnic underrepresentation in genetics, Chartier studied disparities in the resulting social and health problems for alcohol consumption and managed community studies that “examined culturally relevant substance abuse treatment and prevention programs for African Americans and Latinos.”
Since coming to VCU, Chartier says she has had the opportunity to “pull students in” to her work and include them in her research. She says collaborating with her students has been “really rewarding.”
Chartier completed her postdoctoral training at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine’s Alcohol Research Center, where she began to explore alcohol-related issues alongside Victor and Michie Hesselbrock. Chartier has always been drawn to studying alcohol “because of the serious impact that alcohol problems can have on individuals and their relationships with their loved ones.”
“[Alcohol] kind of just reaches out and touches a whole variety of other problems that social workers are concerned about,” Chartier said.
The field of social work has traditionally placed emphasis on an individual’s environment and how environmental factors impact a person’s wellbeing. Chartier says it is important for social workers to also take genetics into account because in cases like addiction, “problems with alcohol run in families.”
“The integration of genetics knowledge into social work is something that will continue to develop as things move forward,” Chartier said. “And as genetics research becomes more solid in terms of understanding the mechanisms and how genetics are related to things like addictions.”