Daphne Martschenko found inspiration for her career at summer camp. For five summers, beginning after her junior year in college at Stanford University, Martschenko worked at Camp Phoenix, which is for youth from low-income backgrounds in the San Francisco Bay Area, primarily Oakland and San Jose.
Camp Phoenix focuses on “joyful learning in an outdoor camp environment,” she says, and her experiences there ignited her passion for making education more equitable for students, regardless of their race or socioeconomic background.
She ultimately pursued a Ph.D. in education, but today her work goes beyond that field. Now a bioethicist at Stanford University, Martschenko is interested in how findings from social and behavioral genomics — the study of how genetic differences among individuals influence complex behaviors and social outcomes — affect society at large, including inequity and injustice and how we respond to them.
With abundant access to genetic information, researchers can now ask new questions about what influences human behavior. But such studies can be prone to bias and can be misinterpreted or co-opted to promote unscientific and even harmful ideas.
Today’s science tells us that race has no basis in genetics, but genetics has been invoked throughout history to justify slavery, racial discrimination, forced sterilization, xenophobic immigration policies and more. A white gunman who killed 10 Black people in a Buffalo supermarket in 2022 cited a genetic study to support his heinous act.
Martschenko’s work focuses on how genomics research can be conducted in a way that is social and ethical, can include community engagement and can be clearly communicated. She looks at the downstream effects of the research, especially social harms, and develops strategies to prevent those harms. She wants to stop “the unintended consequences of our research from playing out,” she says.
Martschenko brings her life experiences to her work. Her father, Ukrainian, and her mother, Nigerian, were living in Kyrgyzstan before her birth. As a child, she lived for a time in Moscow and Ukraine, but she spent her most formative years in the United States. As a biracial woman who identifies as Black, she has experienced people’s negative perceptions firsthand.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in medical anthropology and Slavic studies and a master’s in politics, development and democratic education. Martschenko’s Ph.D. work, which included focus groups and surveys with primary and secondary school teachers, looked at how genomics research on cognitive abilities and educational attainment affected how teachers thought about their students and whether they believed the research was relevant to their teaching. There’s a tendency to think of students in certain racial groups as “not having certain abilities,” she says. She wanted to “contribute to disrupting those harmful narratives.”
More recently, Martschenko has helped create a reading list that draws on scientific papers from social psychology, sociology, genetics education and more to explore how people think about the relationship between race and genetics. She has also built a publicly available repository of open-access FAQs on genomics studies for The Hastings Center. This repository aims to make materials that communicate the context, scope and limitations of studies more accessible and so help prevent misinterpretation and misapplication of those studies.
Setting out the facts
Daphne Martschenko has helped put together a repository of frequently asked questions on genomic studies, which aims to communicate the findings of social and behavioral genomics in a responsible way. An example FAQ for the study “Childhood trauma, life-time self-harm, and suicidal behaviour and ideation are associated with polygenic scores for autism,” which appeared in Molecular Psychiatry, is shown below.
What did the study examine? This study examined whether genetic variants associated with autism are also associated with childhood trauma.
What year was it published? 2019
1. Individuals with a greater number of autism-associated genetic variants were more likely to report childhood trauma, self-harm and suicidal ideation.
2. Several social and environmental factors influenced the relationship between autism-associated genetic variants and trauma.
3. It is important to identify sources of trauma for autistic individuals in order to reduce their occurrence and impact.
4. The associations were very small for all outcomes.
“The idea of getting out in front of the controversy and explaining things in a clearer way so that they’re not just reacting to misuses of the science, but they’re trying to get out in front of it — I think that’s the key attribute of her work,” says bioethicist Steven Joffe of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
One strategy Martschenko employs is called adversarial collaboration, a term originally coined by the Nobel Prize-winning economist and behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman. This approach invites people with opposing viewpoints together to collaborate. They celebrate their disagreements and understand their roots.
To that end, Martschenko is coauthoring a book with Sam Trejo, a quantitative social scientist at Princeton University who uses genomic data to study how social and biological factors shape human development. Martschenko and Trejo have different perspectives on how much genes matter and how to address social inequalities. Their book will unpack the social, ethical and policy issues that have come with the DNA revolution.
Engaging diverse perspectives
Another theme of Martschenko’s work is community engagement. She seeks ways for study participants to be equal partners with researchers. Getting people together, particularly those who haven’t been historically included in conversations around how to study genetics and behavior, helps makes science more inclusive and equitable, Martschenko says. “We need more marginalized representation in research,” she adds, but building trust and access is key.
It’s not enough to have study participants just give an OK for you to use their data, says Barbara Koenig, a medical anthropologist who works in bioethics at the University of California, San Francisco. “My sense is that we have to move away from consent,” she says; study participants need to be collaborators.
Recently, Martschenko, another facilitator and eight community partners came together to design a framework for introducing polygenic scores — a measure of a person’s risk for a disease based on genetic factors — into clinical care. When and how to use such scores in providing health care has been a contentious issue, since they can prove inaccurate and be misinterpreted. Martschenko hopes the work provides a framework for others who want to engage local communities in designing clinical programs.
Facilitating conversations on controversial and ethically charged topics, especially as a young researcher, is not easy work. To destress, Martschenko does a lot of yoga. “It is my safe place to go,” she says. She is a champion rower and uses the lessons she has learned from it to get people working in sync regardless of the conditions.
She says her background has prepared her well for her current work. “I feel like I found my space,” she says. “I found the place where I’m destined, where I’m meant to do the work that I’m doing.”
Daphne Martschenko is one of this year’s SN 10: Scientists to Watch, our list of 10 early and mid-career scientists who are making extraordinary contributions to their field. We’ll be rolling out the full list throughout 2023.
Want to nominate someone for the SN 10? Send their name, affiliation and a few sentences about them and their work to email@example.com.