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

ECON is Coming Home

Students walking around campus this fall may notice a new addition to the campus layout, namely the West View Building, which has been under construction since 2019. This new building is located just west of the Joseph F. Smith Building and enjoys a great view of the city of Provo below. This is particularly exciting news for the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, as our very own Department of Economics will be calling this new building home.

After two years waiting, the Department of Economics is preparing to transition to the new West View Building. The department had previously been housed in the long-standing Faculty Office Building (FOB), which was demolished in winter 2019. The FOB was constructed in 1955 and originally served as a bathroom and ticket facility for the old football stadium. Following the completion of the LaVell Edwards Stadium, the building was repurposed to become the Faculty Office Building.

While construction on the West View Building was underway, the department worked from the Crabtree Building, home of the technology departments.

The move into the new building has already begun and will take place in multiple stages. Computers, furniture, and other office materials are being transitioned quickly into the new offices in an attempt to be prepared for fall semester. According to Mark Showalter, Department Chair of Economics, “the new building will have lots of great new space for students.”  He further explains the new features of the building that will improve the academic experience, saying, “The computer lab will be about double the size of our old lab in the FOB. There is more room available for Teaching Assistants, a new space for Professor Joe Price’s Record Linking Lab, and multiple rooms available for Research Assistants who are working on a variety of projects.” 

The West View Building will house not only the Department of Economics but will also be the new home of the Department of Statistics and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. As the move comes closer to completion, Professor Showalter says, “We miss the unique structure of the old FOB with its natural light and community space, but it will be nice to have heating that works in the winter and cooling that works in the summer.”

School of Family Life Faculty Peter Reschke Receives Honors from the International Congress of Infant Studies

Peter Reschke, Assistant Professor of Human Development in the School of Family Life, was recently awarded the International Congress of Infant Studies (ICIS) 2020 Outstanding Dissertation Honorable Mention. 

Reschke’s work focuses on interpersonal development in infancy, and, as Reschke explains, “creates a theoretical framework to merge two large areas of study: emotion understanding­—the ability to understand others’ emotions—and social cognition—the ability to understand others’ mental states.” He was recognized for three of his dissertation chapters that have been published in well-respected peer-reviewed academic journals. 

Reschke is a BYU alumnus, graduating with a double major in Psychology and Music, and a minor in Spanish in December 2011. Reschke went on to study Psychological Science at University of California, Merced, where he earned his PhD in May 2018. Reschke then went on to teach at BYU, where he currently works as Assistant Professor at the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences. 

Speaking of his passion for this work, Reschke says, “I chose the field of Human Development because there is so much we don’t know about the developing minds of children, especially infants. When do babies start to reason about and predict others’ behaviors? How do babies learn to understand and interpret others’ emotions? Does what we learn about babies and these abilities matter in the long run? How can parents and caregivers use this knowledge to improve their interactions with children and infants? All these questions and more fascinate me!” 

The College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences is proud of Reschke and all the outstanding academic research and literature being produced by our faculty and students. 

You can read his three award-winning articles by following the links below:

Filling in the Tree: BYU’s Record Linking Lab

Family history has been a staple of BYU’s academic focus since the establishment of the Family History Program in 1962. Since then, the department has developed into one of the most robust and premier genealogical programs in the nation—and the only Family History major in the US—hosting numerous conferences, working in conjunction with top genealogical institutions, and providing outstanding research support to both academics and the general public. Over the years, numerous faculty members and campus organizations have participated in or supported family history on campus, including economics professor Joe Price. 

            Price runs the Records Linking Lab, a research team that works to combine machine learning and family history to “help gather every one of God’s children onto the Family Tree at,” says Price. He further explains that “the three main things we do in the lab are auto indexing, record linking, and tree building.”

            Price discovered family history as a personal hobby and wanted to integrate that interest with his research at BYU, saying “I discovered that many economists and other social scientists have been using machine learning to link records. I realized that we could create a lab at BYU to combine machine and traditional family history tools to hasten the work.”

            The lab allows the team to address current events in the context of family history. As COVID-19 continues to shake the world, Price and his team have been working on an auto-indexing death certificate tool. One of the functions of this tool allows users to see who died of influenza or pneumonia during the 1918 Pandemic. Price furthers explains how “we’re now using this data to learn what we can from that pandemic that might provide insights about the current pandemic.” The Linking Lab is using the tools that have been utilized and improved over time to help the community better understand COVID and its effect on society. 

            Beyond the pandemic, the lab has been successful in discovering powerful ways to extract text from historical images. They have also crafted what Price calls a “wide set of tools to link people across multiple records,” and “created ways that humans and computers can work together to dramatically increase the cover of the Family Tree.” These accomplishments carry over into research, where the team has been examining “the relationship between education and lifespan, the inter-generational correlation of lifespan, the long-run impact of prejudice, and the long-run impact of your college roommates,” Price explains. 

            All this work, however, could not be accomplished without a dedicated team of students and volunteers. The lab enjoys the help of over fifty undergraduate assistants, who comb through an enormous amount of information to create databases that the public can use to build their personal family trees. The lab is working to increase the accessibility of these tools to as many people as possible. “We are building tools that match the difficulty of the task to the ability of the user and then help them have ways to practice and increase their ability to take on new tasks,” says Price.

The Record Linking Lab team

            All of this is done in an effort to “help change the way people talk about family history research. We sometimes talk about the people on the Family Tree at FamilySearch as ‘my tree’ or ‘our tree’ but it really is God’s tree and we are all part of it…All of our volunteer experiences are built around helping grow the Family Tree for others.”

            Price looks forward to the future of the lab with optimism. Though the team has already accomplished a great deal, Price has additional goals for the project going forward, including: 

(1) Link together the 217 million people that lived in the US between 1850-1940 into a single Census Tree that will interact with the Family Tree to provide hints and other discovery experiences

(2) Increase the coverage of Black families on the Family Tree

(3) Create a pipeline that will allow the lab to auto index historical records that have handwriting on top of a pre-printed form

(4) Create a discovery experience for museums

(5) Make it possible for every new convert in the US to find 100 family names to take to the temple 

These five goals lead to the ultimate aim of the Record Linking Lab, which Price says is to “help ensure that each of the 107 billion people that have lived on earth have a profile on the Family Tree and are linked to as many records and family members as possible.”

         The Record Linking Lab is going strong and provides great opportunities to volunteer with family history research. To learn more about their work and how you can support the lab, visit their website at . 

Photos courtesy of BYU Economics

Love at Home: making the most of quarantine

With the closure of schools, businesses, and social institutions as a means to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, most families have been confined together in their homes for what has become months. For some, this has been a wonderful experience to reconnect with their loved ones in a new way. For others, this may be a suffocating loop of confined over-socialization. And for most, the experience is probably something in the middle.

For those hoping to make the most of this time with family—or even just survive it—Dr. David Dollahite, a professor of family life at BYU’s College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, shares some professional insights. 

For him, the key difference between this being a rewarding experience versus a challenging one comes down to “what might be called the 3Rs of happy families: Relationship quality, Responsiveness to needs, and Reconciliation after conflict: Relationship quality includes love, kindness, and emotional warmth. Responsiveness to needs involves active listening, patient understanding, and efforts to meet needs. Reconciliation after conflict involves being willing to admit fault (apologizing) and practical efforts to make things right.”

Of course, the rewarding nature of this experience will change from individual to individual, even within families. This is especially true during emotionally stressful periods. Certainly, this quarantine could qualify as such a time; many are out of work, worried about getting sick, and generally uncertain about how things will progress moving into the future. Dollahite says concerning the ways families can support those struggling, “Well-functioning, happy families can provide at least three important things during times of stress and uncertainty: a safe harbor where family members can enjoy physical, emotional, and spiritual rest and healing; a sense of meaning in a time of existential anxiety and significant uncertainty; and a set of routines and rituals that can have a calming, comforting influence.”

For those worrying that they aren’t doing enough, one thing to remember is the importance of “Managing expectations… [which is] the central skill in navigating life’s challenges. This can involve expecting changes and challenges to be constant; expecting ups and downs in life, in relationships, and in emotional wellbeing; and expecting that only rarely will real life live up to one’s expectations and ideals.” 

The COVID-19 Pandemic may prove to bring long term changes that go beyond healthcare. When asked about his thoughts on the change in family dynamics in the long-run, Dollahite says, “Families that had relatively good relationships and merely lacked time together will probably have improved relationships, while families with relatively poor relationships and coped by avoiding each other may suffer from worsened relationships.”

            So, what can be done? How can we continue to navigate the volatile world of quarantine and prepare ourselves to return back to normal life? The solution may still be unclear, but Dollahite believes that “from what I have observed, many persons and many families will look back on some aspects of the shutdowns as a blessing in disguise. Having spent significantly more time at home, alone, with family and close friends will have been a recuperative experience for many (and of course, an extremely trying and difficult time for many as well).” This will be a chance for people to take a closer look at their personal relationships. Dollahite believes that this may have beneficial long-term effects to the extent that “Some couples and families may realize that they had let life become so busy and scattered that they will want to make lasting changes in their work-family balance. Some couples and families may realize that they have problems that they really need help with and will turn to self-help books, or therapists, or other sources of help.”

            Concerning what to do as we move forward, Dollahite is confident that “We will have betters answers to this question after we have results from our upcoming survey on religion and relationships before, during, and after COVID-19.” Data is currently being gathered for this study, and results will not be published until the end of the summer. 

All Are Free to Breathe

As George Floyd died at the hands of law enforcement officers he cried out, “I can’t breathe.” Those desperate final words now echo in the mouths of the American people as protests erupt across the nation. 

His is yet another name added to a growing list of victims of police brutality against blacks, and with every name the outcry for change and justice grows louder. Lita Giddins, the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences’ (FHSS) Diversity, Collaboration, and Inclusion Coordinator says, “The question on the minds of everyone…is ‘How long until we are free from this issue?’  Protestors against racism are no longer asking the question.  Their unified response is, ‘Now.’”

One of the voices speaking up belongs to Taylor Munlin, a FHSS student. Munlin is an executive director with BYUSA, a member of the Black Student Union, and a member of the FHSS Diversity, Collaboration, and Inclusion Committee. She says that the primary goal of this committee is to create a culture of Zion in the college and at BYU.

We are commanded in the scriptures to “keep my commandments and seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion” (Doctrine and Covenants 6:6). Zion is the place where all of God’s children are treated with an equal fullness of love and respect, where the arbitrary distinctions of social categories are stripped, and each can be appreciated for their unique identity as a son or daughter of God. The Book of Mormon promises “blessed are they who shall seek to bring forth my Zion at that day” (1 Nephi 13:37). 

But how? Repeating tired platitudes of unity and love on social media, while perhaps well-intended, does little by itself to solve issues at the fundamental level. 

Giddins comments, “The question I continue to ask myself is ‘What is preventing Zion, the ‘pure in heart,’ from being established?’  Purity or clarity of vision to increase self-awareness as we ask ourselves, ‘What lack I yet?’ is key (Matthew 19:20).” She goes on to say “Lowering our defenses to acknowledge the truth of what we see is greatly needed.  Accepting with courage the need to rethink historic mindsets in order to care and act differently to eradicate the deadly pandemic of specific community members being ‘acted upon’ is essential.”

Munlin says that Zion cannot be established until the injustices against the black community are addressed and remedied. Individual instances of injustice are simply manifestations of a larger societal illness. 

While most Americans have an understanding of racism from slavery through the civil rights movement, the story doesn’t just end there. The issue, Munlin explains, is that “we are taught that systemic discrimination ended with the successes of the civil rights movement in the sixties,” when in fact those systems were simply altered and replaced. She says that though laws do not specifically target individuals based on race, certain laws, institutions, and practices have a disproportionate effect on the black community. According to Munlin, these include, but are not limited to education, housing, healthcare, criminal sentencing, and incarceration.  

Even at BYU, where the administration seeks to create an environment of equality and tolerance, there are still obstacles to overcome. Munlin explained how the BYU rule requiring a full-time faculty sponsor for clubs makes it difficult for organizations like the Black Student Union to find that required sponsor support. This would be easier if the sponsorship rule could be extended to part time or ¾ time employees as well. 

Forms of racism are also present within strains of the campus culture. Even well-intentioned individuals are prone to make insensitive remarks or dismiss the lived experience of others. 

“What if I told you ‘you’re really smart for a blonde’,” Munlin asked. “Those are the kinds of comments that people make here that are meant to be compliments.” 

Munlin said one way that students can make a meaningful change is to, “Say things for what they are. Don’t say ‘the issue in society’, say ‘racism against blacks.” To Munlin, the use of euphemisms to avoid addressing uncomfortable topics only prevents the kind of honest discussions that lead to meaningful change. 

Munlin appreciated President Worthen’s willingness to address the issue directly in his June 2, 2020 message, “With the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others over the years, and the confluence of recent events, important conversations are happening…BYU stands firmly against racism and violence in any form and is committed to promoting a culture of safety, kindness, respect and love.”

The question then shifts to what concrete steps must be taken to create real change. Munlin cites the official site of the NAACP, where specific pieces of legislation are posted and explained. She says that everyone should take the time to review these proposed laws and supplement that with an immersion in relevant literature.

At the end of the day, “allyship is about more than social media campaigns,” says Munlin. To her, it involves addressing issues directly, making donations, consuming black media, participating in community outreach, identifying and stopping micro-aggressions, taking relevant courses, giving a platform for black voices, and most of all, genuinely listening to those voices with the intent to understand and act. 

Giddins shares her hopes for a more loving inclusive society saying, “I now view the air we breathe as a heavenly gift.  I now view a Zion community as ‘the pure in heart.’ Christ and His people are one there, and all are free to breathe.”