The New Jini Roby Scholarship for the School of Social Work

This story was lifted from the 2020-2021 Social Work Newsletter and was authored by MSW student Pamela Love.

This year the BYU School of Social Work will establish a new scholarship named after Jini Roby, who retired in 2019 after serving as a beloved professor and colleague for 20 years. “She left an incredible legacy,” writes Charlene Clark.

            Dr. Gene Gibbons, founder of the School of Social Work, tells of watching Jini grow through the BSW and MFT/MSW programs here at BYU. After beginning her practice as a social worker, Dr. Gibbons recounts that Jini came to him one day and said, “Would you write a letter for me to go to law school?” And, he said, “Well, you know I would.” Then, after her first year of law school, the Dean of the law school called Dr. Gibbons and said, “If you have any more Jini Robys, would you please send them my way?” Later, when BYU had an opening for a new faculty member, Dr. Gibbons recommended Jini. He told the hiring committee, “I’m telling you, she’ll put us on the map. She will make BYU known.” He went on to commend her competency and kindness: “She has been a shining star. She as helped all these third world countries protect their children. She had a following [here in the School of Social Work]. Anyone who new Jini wanted to be a part of her project and be around her. She just had such a magnificent influence.”

            Indeed, after earning her Marriage and Family Therapy/Master of Social Work at BYU, Jini Roby shared that she felt inspired to attend law school and begin her work as an international expert in family policy and law. After being on the BYU faculty for a year, in 1999, Jini was asked to help the Marshall Islands with their adoption laws “because of the difficulties they had with children being spirited away without any processes or procedures…They had no law, and because adoption was an entirely different process, there was no termination of parental rights…Adoptions typically occurred between kin, but when American families started adopting these children, the cultural understanding wasn’t there that this was terminating their parental rights; and they would probably never see their children again.”

            “The country was very alarmed,” Jini said, “There was a lot of money being exchanged under the table—buying and selling children. So, I was involved in helping to establish [adoption] laws. After that, I started going to other countries to look at their adoption situations, and my vision was opened up to the rest of the child welfare spectrum…A lot of it was related to poverty, neglect, and the lack of resources.”

            Jini shared a poignant lesson she learned at the very beginning of her work in international family law that guided her from then on. She had this life-changing conversation with the people of the Marshall Islands as she began to explain how Western adoption works with them:

“What do you mean by termination of parental rights? It sounds like they are being cut off,” they said.

Jini told them, “That’s what it means. That’s what it means legally, it means parents who gave birth are no longer the parents.”

“How is that possible?” they asked, “Who has authority to say that?”

“A judge does,” Jini replied.

“A man can override what God has done? We don’t get it. Why is that?” they asked in response.

“Oh my goodness,” she said, “Yes, that’s something to think about. You know, you’re helping me to understand these problems that you’ve been having.”

“Why do the Western people have to make up these lies?” they asked. “How is that good for the children? In our society, if a child needs to be raised by another family because their original family can’t provide for them, then we find another family, but we never cut off the original family. The child has both families. Are you sure you understand this? Because it seems to cruel, too unwise.”

            Jini admitted, “That was a huge lesson for me in cultural sensitivity and cultural humility. It was such a strong lesson. I will never, ever just march into a country and assume that my perspectives, though I am highly educated, are necessarily correct. It has to be a humble partnership on my part.”

            Shortly after this incident, Professor Roby remembers visiting the hut of a small village in Mozambique on a cold and rainy day where a mother who had AIDS was huddled on the wet floor surrounded by her children. The translator told Jini, referring to the mother, “She has been sent home to die. She has not been able to talk about what to do with her children when she dies. She has been blamed for her condition even though her husband had brought HIV into the relationship. He has already died, and her husband’s family has blamed her for his death. By law and tradition, the children will go to his family. She does not want this to happen.” Jini then realized that this mother “had not been counseled. She did not know what her options were. She had nobody to talk to.”

In remembering this mother’s sad story, Jini said, “That just tore me to the core. I thought, ‘There needs to be counseling There needs to be ways that mothers can be empowered to make these decisions.’” Although unable to help the mother in Mozambique before her dearth, a year later, Jini took a group of law and social work students to Uganda to write 450 wills for mothers who were dying of AIDS. “The law students wrote the wills and the social work students helped with the memory books,” she said. Incidentally, Dr. Cole Hooley led the memory book project among the social work students. Jini also shared stories of her work with Dr. Stacey Shaw. She truly loved her students, some of whom became her cherished faculty colleagues.

            In reminiscing about these experiences, Jini said, “I learned. My heart was pierced, and I was humbled; but I was lucky enough that when I was at BYU that I could then do something about what I learned—not to solve the whole problem, but to do something—and to have the students experience what it’s like to be part of healing, just a little hand of support, a little demonstration of kindness.”

            Professor Roby also told of the love she felt from her grandmother as a child in Korea. She said, “I grew up in abject poverty, yet I was rich. I tend to disagree with a lot of the conceptualization of what’s best for children. The first right that a child has is to be raised by their family, including their extended family. To me, the richest type of privilege is to be loved and to be empowered to believe in yourself, which I was.”

            Jini went on to say, “What I love about social work is that you have the opportunity to learn and to suffer with people who suffer in a way that maybe you can bring some relief, some comfort. To me, it’s such a privilege. This is not about me, or if it is about me, it’s about what I’m going to learn and how I’m going to grow to help more…This is why I am so honored that there will be scholarship in my name because I so believe in the education process. It’s not just empowering for the individual, but it’s going to have a rippling effect for the people they will impact.”


This story was taken from the 2020-2021 Social Work Newsletter, which can be found and read in full at https://socialwork.byu.edu/newsletters . 

Brain Scans Illuminate Potential Reasons Some Adolescents Are More Susceptible to Obesity

Kelsey Zaugg, PhD student in the BYU Clinical Psychology Program

According to the CDC, 1 in 5 children are affected by obesity in the United States today. 

Kelsey Zaugg, PhD student in the BYU Clinical Psychology Program, has committed her research to ensure that children are psychologically, physically and spiritually healthy.

Zaugg’s research involves MRI data and neuroimaging of the brain. She studies how the rewarding impact of food is related to obesity in children. Her goal is to see if there is an association between weight and brain structures involved in reward processing. 

By looking at parts of the brain associated with how we process rewards, Zaugg has been able to discover that these brain structures are different in their literal shape for adolescents with higher body mass indexes. Zaugg says, “This finding helps to illuminate a potential reason why some adolescents might be more susceptible to obesity than their peers.”

Her findings are currently in the process of being submitted for potential publication.

According to Zaugg, there are many factors that play into childhood obesity including brain anatomy. She said, “It is so much more than the societal stigma that a person is simply being lazy.”

Upon completing her PhD, Zaugg plans to work in an academic medical center alongside pediatric psychologists in a children’s hospital. She says, “I want to be a part of an integrated care model and work with physicians and psychiatrists to give kids the comprehensive care they need.”

Zaugg expresses her gratitude for the role she has played in helping children: ”In life, we will not be able to remove all challenges children may face, but we can do our part to limit some of the vulnerabilities of children so they can face challenges with a strong foundation.”

Learn more about BYU’s Clinical Psychology PhD Program here.

Diversity, Collaboration, & Inclusion Art Contest

The College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences’ Diversity, Collaboration, and Inclusion Committee is sponsoring an art contest as part of their campaign to nurture a Zion community, one that is based on unity, respect, and charity towards all, at BYU. They hope that this call for art submissions will inspire students to reflect on what it means to be a disciple of Christ and stand up for social injustice.

The theme for this year is Building a Diverse Community Today for a Zion Community Tomorrow. Students are encouraged to internalize this message and create something that accurately shares what that message means to them. 

This call is open for submissions beginning November 30th and will close January 11th, 2021. Students may create submissions in any medium they desire, as long as the following criteria are met:

*Student must be a Family, Home, and Social Sciences Major

*The entry may be any medium, but must be smaller than 2’ x 3’

*Student must agree that if chosen, their work will be donated to the college of FHSS

*Student must fill out the accompanying form (see bottom) to be considered

*Only one entry per student

Entries will be judged by a panel of DCI committee members and staff representatives based on aesthetic merit and how well the piece reflects the prompt. Winners will be chosen and will be awarded as follows:

1st Place: $300

2nd Place: $200

3rd Place: $100

Honorable Mention: $50

All students are encouraged to participate in this wonderful opportunity to reflect on the idea of fostering a Zion community at BYU. Submitted works will be displayed at the College, replacing artwork previously hung, as a way to demonstrate our commitment to upholding principles of diversity and inclusion. All artwork will be displayed/showcased throughout Black History Month.

For any questions, please contact Lita Little Giddins.

lita_giddins@byu.edu

All submissions due by January 11th, 2021.

Follow this link to the official site: https://fhss.byu.edu/diversity-collaboration-and-inclusion-art-contest

Submission form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfl1hFlA3Ls18cGMHoJD08VJMOZImc-VZXDv0CKvs2BmWxKSQ/viewform

Walking Through the Comprehensive Clinic

At a program anniversary event, faculty from BYU’s Marriage and Family Therapy program took time to ask themselves “What have we done?” In academia, impact is measured by publications, performance ratings, and research achievements. This time, however, they decided to look further, at the less measurable standards of impact. One clinician mentioned walking across campus at a different university when someone came up to him, recognized him, and said, “You saved my marriage.” How does one measure that kind of impact? Thinking of this impact, Dean Barley of the Comprehensive Clinic looks to the future, saying, “We will continue to learn how to do better what we do, what health looks like, and how to help people get there, so we can accomplish frankly the purpose for which we are on the planet: to get back to Heavenly Father.” 

That’s the spirit and overall purpose of BYU’s Comprehensive Clinic, which is located on the east border of campus, across the street from the Creamery. In the seventies, members of various disciplines within BYU had the idea to consolidate psychology, marriage and family therapy, and social work into a building designed to provide hands-on learning for students as well as service to the community. Barley explains, “one initial vision was that the academic side could do development of theory and practice, and they could help in the creation of training modules to be used by LDS family services…Cross referring and interdisciplinary research and services, that was the idea.” 

The Clinic provides students excellent training in clinical psychology, marriage and family therapy, and social work. Unlike BYU Counseling Services, which is designed especially for BYU students, the Comprehensive Clinic focuses on the uninsured and underinsured members of the surrounding community. Over 100 students and 30 supervisors take on anywhere between 850 to 1,000 cases a year. Graduate students provide the therapy under the careful supervision of their faculty supervisors, who are also licensed therapists.  

To receive access to these services, potential clients call the Clinic and are scheduled by the receptionist for a phone intake interview with a graduate student. These interviews last 20-30 minutes and are designed to assess the client’s needs and eligibility for care. As a training institution, the clinic is careful to not exceed what they are able to offer; more extreme cases are referred to an appropriate clinic elsewhere. Clients have access to therapy sessions as well as psychological assessments. Sessions are typically $15, though the client can negotiate with the therapist if that is financially challenging. The purpose of the Comprehensive Clinic is to help those in the community who struggle to receive help through normal clinical routes while providing excelling training for the next generation of therapists.  

The clinic isn’t just a place of practice though, as many faculty are conducting research in a wide variety of subjects: positive psychology, autism, obesity, violence in relationships, anxiety, marriage therapy, stress, trauma, and adolescent development, to name a few. The Comprehensive Clinic is the intersect of these diverse fields’ academic and applied endeavors.  

While explaining the function and operations of the clinic, Dean Barley shifted in his chair and began to speak more candidly: “The end goal of all we do is to create a heavenly family, and when we are all done, if things go well, we will be back together.” There was a clear empathy in his voice as he continued, “This is a beautiful and applied setting. How can we help those who are struggling—individuals, couples, and families—across a lifetime span to help us accomplish life’s real purpose?” For Barley, the Clinic is the “crown jewel” of the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, taking all of the theories across multiple disciplines and consolidating them into a place of true care. Barley says, “In this setting it’s: ‘Things aren’t going well, let’s get you healthy again so that you’re thriving and not just striving.’ So, we have a noble purpose here.”  

When one walks the halls of the Clinic, it is clear that this noble purpose is at the forefront of all that the Clinic tries to do. There are several rooms where the actual therapy sessions take place, each designed to be relaxing for the clients and educational for the students. Beautiful photos hang on the wall, toys for children fill cubbies, and comfortable atmospheres make an environment that encourages healthy and productive therapy. There are also rooms dedicated entirely as spaces for students to work, study, and relax. The faculty and students who spend much of their day in this building are dedicated to improving their skills and providing the best possible service to people in the surrounding community. 

With the arrival of COVID, the Clinic was forced to transition most of their care to online meetings, which was an adjustment. However, this has had the unforeseen benefit of allowing them to access clients in a broader geographic area. Where once only those in Utah County were able to meet for regular appointments, the introduction of teletherapy sessions has allowed for a more expansive coverage. The Clinic will continue to operate online for as long as is appropriate, after which a decision will be made on how to move forward and improve access to these services for the community.  

If you or someone you know in the community could be helped by the services of the Comprehensive Clinic, please contact them through the resources provided below. They are happy to get you the care you need.  

(801) 422-7759

https://comprehensiveclinic.byu.edu

Family Life in a Pandemic

Findings presented by deseret.com/AFS

How has a devastating pandemic, social unrest, and political turmoil affected American families? Though most might assume family life has become more stressful, strained, and shaky in recent months, the 2020 American Family Survey results showed despite “pockets of trouble” in family life, there is still strong evidence of “resilience in the face of adversity”. Despite societal tumult, the state of the American family seems to be better than we might have expected.

Principal Investigators Christopher F. Karpowitz & Jeremy C. Pope and Co-Directors of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU, designed the 2020 American Family Survey, an annual nationwide poll with 3,000 respondents, to test how families are faring under unprecedented conditions.

The survey was administered between July 3-14, at the height of racial, social, and political unrest, and these are five of the most interesting findings as identified by the Deseret News.

Finding #1: The pandemic is making families stronger.

56% of respondents say the pandemic helped them appreciate their partner and 43% evaluated their own marriages as getting stronger. Nearly a majority, 47% of respondents agreed with the statement that, “the pandemic has deepened my commitment to my relationship.” During the 2020 American Family Survey webcast from the Brookings Institution, Principal Investigator Karpowitz concluded, “We do see resilience in relationships.” In a time of worldly upheaval, some think couples would struggle, but surprisingly 62% of respondents disagreed that the pandemic had made them question the strength of their relationship.

Finding #2: Since the pandemic started, men are more likely to say they struggle balancing work and home life.

With many men and women now working from home, work and home life is all managed under the same roof. 40% of men versus 31% of women say the balance is a struggle.

Finding #3: The role of a parent has become more important

80% of parents say their role as a parent is important to their identity, up from 71% in 2018. Karpowitz said, “We are living in a unique moment, a moment that is priming those identities, a politicized moment. But it’s also a moment where people are especially cognizant of their family relationships.” Panelist and Senior Fellow of Economic and Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution Camille Busette discussed how parenting has increased in importance for respondents, and how greater percentages of Blacks, Latinos and Whites reported that their role as parents is important to their identity than in previous years. Busette discussed how this increase could be attributed to the fact that many parents took on the additional role as educators and invested personally in their children’s education during the pandemic.

Finding #4: Men think they’re carrying their weight around the house.

With many men and women staying home, men say they’re dividing tasks 50-50, but women disagree. Women say it’s more like 65-35.

Finding #5: More extended families are moving in together.

There was a significant increase in percent of families living with extended family. 25% of respondents live with extended family, up from 20% last year.

These findings show the resilient nature of American families, but there is also a relationship between respondents who reported lost income and increased stress in marriage. 24% of those who reported no lost income during the pandemic also reported an increase of stress in marriage as compared to 34% of those who reported lost income of a spouse or partner. Dr. Pope discussed the negative effects of the pandemic on the family: “This highlights that most people are resilient but there are pockets of people who are experiencing trouble and it’s worth us paying attention to.”

Panelist and Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings Institution Richard Reeves shared his thoughts about the importance of relationships within American families during the pandemic, “The survey shows the need for, and a hunger for a good relational quality of life…I do think that the things that people associate with marriage and family are being more valued, [and] that’s true with extended families coming together [and] people having to spend more time with their children.”

Busette proposed future implications of the survey results, “The picture that’s clear here is that families are very resilient, particularly during COVID. And I think the fact that they have been so focused on their families means that there is an interesting foundation upon which to pursue pro-family policies in the next few years.”

Reeves concluded that the survey shows that “if there’s a piece of hope, maybe it’s that we have a broader recognition of how much our relationships matter.”

Topline reports and data sets are available for download from BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

Watch the Brookings Institution presentation of the results and expert panel.

See more findings at deseret.com/AFS.

Military Service and Male Veterans’ Civic Engagement

Sven Wilson portrait Photography by Alyssa Lyman/BYU

How does military service affect male veterans’ civic participation?

BYU professor & chair of the Department of Political Science, Sven Wilson recently published a paper in the journal Armed Forces & Society showing that military service has historically predicted greater civic involvement later in life.

Wilson and coauthor William Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute published “Military Service, Combat Experience, and Civic Participation,” which examines the relationship between military service, combat experience, and civic engagement. The researchers stated the goal of their study: “We wanted to see whether veterans, especially those with combat experience, are more or less active in their communities.”

Wilson and Ruger looked at data from the National Survey of Families and Households from 1987–88 and found that veterans are more engaged civically than other men across all the major wars of the 20th century.

The researchers analyzed responses from 2,185 men aged 30–69 who were divided into three groups: nonveterans, noncombat veterans, and combat veterans. The respondents indicated their civic participation from a list of 15 kinds of organizations.

Using data from the national survey, the researchers found that the likelihood and intensity of group participation is higher among veterans than other men and that combat veterans have the highest level of participation. Wilson and Ruger found that combat veterans were just as likely to participate as noncombat veterans in service, youth and sports groups.

Christie Allen for BYU news reported that, “According to survey data, male veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were significantly more likely than male nonveterans to join civic groups. They also on average joined 21% more groups and had a 19% higher rate of participation than nonveterans, even when researchers controlled for veterans’ increased educational opportunities, which are known to boost civic activity.”

Read the full article by Christie Allen on BYU news.

“Patterwitz” and a New Approach to American Heritage

The Fall 2020 Semester has been unlike any before at BYU, and students and faculty alike are feeling the strain of hours-long, sometimes mind-numbing online activity. For courses with high enrollment, classes have been held exclusively online in a variety of formats. Some faculty post prerecorded lectures, others host live Zoom meetings, and all are just trying to do the best that they can. So, it may come as a surprise that BYU’s infamous American Heritage course has found a way to have a little fun with online learning.   

Understanding that their teaching would be moved online, Professors Chris Karpowitz and Kelly Patterson began brainstorming a new style of class back in April. They knew that many of their students would be freshman, and that these students had likely either lost out on their senior year or had been reassigned or released early from missions. They wanted to make American Heritage a memorable part of these students’ day, while preserving the academic rigor of the course. They also knew that they couldn’t take on this project alone; they needed a team of help.   

Karpowitz and Patterson decided to consolidate the six sections of their class into one lecture session, held on Monday and Wednesday at 11AM, where they deliver an interactive online lecture for around 2,400 students. Bruce Burgon, database manager at FHSS who has been helping with the course, says “The two professors are team teaching, but they discuss with each other the principle. They can put each other on the spot and ask tough questions that would normally embarrass a student. They can build off of each other’s energy.”  

The class is designed to look and feel like a tv show. Ron Ralston and his production team from OIT have taken the American Heritage review room in the library and transformed it into a stunning learning studio. Every Monday and Wednesday the team  starts  work at 9:00 am to make sure that everything is ready for the broadcast. As part of the design, students  are able to  engage with the lectures through polls, chat, and a panel of students connected to the lecture via Zoom.   

Kristen Betts, administrator for American Heritage, says “Students have really loved the new style, especially the chemistry of the professors. The dialogue between the professors has been really great. It’s fun for students because it’s really engaging.” She and her team make sure that students have access to all the resources they need to succeed in the course. This interactive format means more students are tuning in and working with the material instead of just passively listening to the lecture. In addition, Teaching Assistants still provide scheduled labs on either Thursday or Friday and online review sessions for students who need extra time with the concepts taught in class.   

One student says, “The implementation of remote/online learning is something that is fairly new to me as a recently graduated high school senior. Until now,  I wasn’t really exposed to it, but I would say that the professors Patterson and Karpowitz  [and team]  have made the transition very seamless. As a class that emphasizes student participation, your ability to explore concepts and apply them into current events is something that really cultivates your capability to learn.”   

Another student, Josh Rueckert,  reflects, “This semester has definitely been a big change, I’m not used to taking classes online.” He goes on to say, “American Heritage has surprised me with the lectures, I feel like I have fun watching the professors engage with the students remotely.  Overall different doesn’t always mean bad, new experiences can surprise you.”  

The production team had a little fun and came up with the surprisingly catchy  title “Patterwitz” to refer to the two professors. Some students have taken the moniker and “are distributing t-shirts of it on the black market,” according to Burgon. While walking through the library, Dr. Karpowitz was surprised to meet a student who enthusiastically displayed her “Patterwitz” t-shirt to him.   

A meme page has  also  popped up on Instagram, with  captioned pictures based on that  day’s lecture  posted regularly.  The students running the Instagram account said, “It started after my first day of class when I was like ‘these guys are  kinda  funny’ and made a meme about them looking exactly the same.” They went on to say, “I like that I get a better understanding of American values and history. I feel like a more effective American citizen and that I can contribute to  democracy with the right educational background. It also is cool that we’re learning all of these things while an election is happening.”   

American Heritage is inspiring excitement where students once felt  mostly  dread  because of  its  reputation for  extensive readings and challenging  exams.   

While the professors enjoy the new format, they realize that none of this would have been possible without  Kristen Betts  (American Heritage)  and   Ron  Ralston  (OIT)  and his  production team.  These people, according to the faculty, deserve all the credit  for the  course’s  successful integration into the online format, saying “They  took  our  idea and transformed it into something exciting and engaging. They  have gone above and beyond to make American Heritage what it is this semester… we  think it is a significant example of the different ways  by  which  individuals  throughout the university demonstrate their  devotion to  the educational mission of the university.”  

ECON Research Highlight

Rationalizing self-defeating behaviors: theory and evidence

The economics community was abuzz recently in anticipation of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson for their work on auction theory. More is happening in the field, however, as BYU’s Dr. Olga Stoddard, Dr. Lars Lefgren, and Dr. John Stovall had their paper accepted into the Journal of Health Economics.

Their paper, “Rationalizing self-defeating behaviors: theory and evidence”, seeks to answer why individuals engage in self-harm; how these people, when trapped by multiple competing problems, experience the apathy of depression or inaction They hypothesized that individuals can only handle experiencing a certain amount of “latent stimuli”. They are excited with the news that this important research will now be published for others to study.  

            Check out the full article: https://economics.byu.edu/00000174-786e-da1b-affe-7f7f11d10000/rationalizing-self-defeating-behaviors 

Fighting Cancer with Family History

Ashlyn Taylor, a BYU student working for the Center of Family History and Genealogy, starts her day by clocking in and jumping on the computer to sift through email. For her, every day presents new tasks and challenges. She spends much of her time utilizing a breadth of genealogical skills that she has acquired, including reading census data and analyzing DNA, to track people’s genetic heritage. She also contacts study participants, edits report templates, and compiles data for research application. Once a week she joins a call with Dr. Brian Shirts and his team of researchers at the University of Washington to discuss their progress and goals. And, at the end of the week, she compiles a report based on her findings to send to this team. 

The goal of this research? End preventable hereditary disease like cancer. The method: Family history. 

This idea was born as Dr. Shirts and his lab were working with Heather Hampel, a genetic counselor and hereditary colorectal cancer researcher at The Ohio State University. As Shirts’ lab was conducting genetic testing for this study, they discovered the same MSH2 gene variant in two individuals that shared no obvious relationship. Wondering if there was some genetic component, one of Hampel’s staffers conducted genealogical research and discovered that these two were 3rd cousins. Through extended family history research, dozens of descendants from the same common ancestor were identified and received preventative screening and care for cancer. 

Seeing the efficacy of using genealogical factors to identify high risk patients, Shirts said he “did genetic analysis of other pairs of people who shared a variant and found that two people who have the same rare cancer risk variant have over 90% chance of being related.” He went on to explain that “by using family history to connect distant relatives, we could dramatically improve cancer prevention outreach.” 

Shirts reached out to Jill Crandell of BYU’s Center of Family History and Genealogy to see if she would be interested in conducting research in coordination with his lab. With 3 years of funding provided by the Brotman Bay Institute for Precision Medicine, Shirts’ and Crandell’s labs began in 2019 on a cooperative effort to use genealogical tools to trace strains of cancer.

When Dr. Shirts’ lab identifies individuals with a certain rare genetic variant, those people are connected to the BYU genealogical team. The team, working with the subjects and their families, uses genetic and traditional genealogical research to find a common ancestor between the subjects with the same variant, moving up the family tree to find a shared link. From there, they move back down the tree from that common ancestor to identify other living descendants, who are then contacted about their potential risk of cancer. 

Once two or more individuals are identified with a genetic variant for cancer, researchers track a common ancestor and then attempt to find and contact living descendants who may be at a similar risk.

According to Shirts, the hardest part is, “Finding people who know that they have a hereditary cancer risk mutation and realize that they can use that information to help a lot of close and distant relatives…most people who are at risk find out after they get cancer, which is too late.” It can be difficult to find more than one person with the same variant who is willing to work with the project. With only one, it is nearly impossible to track the variant through their ancestry. With two or more subjects, all the researchers have to do is determine where the line of their genealogy intersects.

The research is moving forward, though, as BYU student researchers become more adept with genealogical tools and more people are becoming aware of the project. Taylor boasts, “A recent highlight that we have found is an exponential increase in the number of participants we are working with.” As the number of participants in the study increases, Dr. Shirts and his team are better able to identify at-risk persons and get them preventative care, which is much better than reactive care. 

Ashlyn Taylor working in the lab.

            Shirts is constantly impressed with the quality of work done by Crandell’s team, saying “Every day I am surprised at how effectively the student researchers at the BYU Center for Family History and Genealogy team are able to identify relatives of the people that enroll in this project. It is fantastic to see what they can do with just a little information.” 

The more participants the study can find and connect with each other, the greater Shirts is able to identify and prevent traumatic cancer diagnoses by catching the risk early. 

            Shirts continues to focus on eradicating hereditary disease like cancer through genetic identification. In reflecting on his passion for the medical field, he says, “I keep a quote on my wall that says, ‘Nobody ever thanks you for saving them from the disease they didn’t know they were going to get.’ Even though it is hard, it is incredibly satisfying to be able to help someone prevent a disease like cancer.” 

To find out more, go to ConnectMyVariant.org

Constitution Day Lecture Recap

On Thursday, September 17, 2020, in observance of Constitution Day, the College of Family, Home, and Social hosted its annual Constitution Day Lecture. This year’s lecture, “President Trump’s Immigration Policies: Are They Constitutional?” was presented by Dr. Anna O. Law. Law is the Herbert Kurz Chair in Constitutional Rights in the Department of Political Science at CUNY Brooklyn College. She is actively involved with research and publication on current political issues, most notably concerning gender and asylum for immigrants. She is the author of The Immigration Battle in American Courts and is currently working on a new book about slavery and immigration federalism. Law’s field of academic expertise lies at the intersect of public law and US immigration policy and history.

Law’s lecture began with an examination of how the Trump administration’s approach to immigration policy has differed from those of past administrations. She stated that the issue is an overwhelming “volume of lies” and an associated disregard for “the rule of law.” According to Law, this rule of law consists of the following:

  • A universal application of justice
  • Fair and consistent rules
  • Robust legal processes where protections of rights are enforced
  • A competent population of lawyers and judges

Law went on to examine both the constitutionality and the efficacy of Trump’s many policies concerning immigration, including the border wall and significant changes to the asylum application process. She also discussed how the administration is currently using the COVID-19 pandemic to justify even more restrictions on those seeking to enter the US through the southern border. Law pointed out flaws inboth the Trump and Obama administrations’ treatment of undocumented workers and proposes a more humane approach to immigration management. For her, a reformed immigration policy focuses on the following:

  • Pressuring employers of undocumented migrants
  • Securing employment verification
  • Increasing foreign aid
  • Dismantling the Department of Homeland Security
  • Implementing stricter gun reform laws

The College of Family, Home, and Social Science is grateful to Dr. Law for taking the time to speak and share her academic and professional insights on this complex and controversial issue. For those that were unable to attend the lecture, a recording is posted and available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwmX2EweNj8