By Karl Leif Bates

The freshman reading is a long-standing college tradition: Everybody reads the same book as they arrive on campus and then stimulating discussions and group cohesion are supposed to follow.

What usually follows is ignoring the book or complaining about it. That’s a long-standing tradition too.

But what if the reading was a little more personal and engaging? What if the reading was a first-year student’s own genome? The advent of “direct to consumer” personal genome scans done by mail for about a hundred bucks suddenly makes this a reasonable and very provocative question to ask.

IGSP seniors

IGSP seniors (L-R) Daphne Ezer, Jenny Pan, Megan Morikawa and Arun Sharma recommend a trial personal genomes "reading" for freshmen.

A team of four students graduating this week tackled the idea as part of a capstone senior project in the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy.  The team presented their findings last week to a small seminar that included IGSP Director Hunt Willard and a slightly intimidating handful of professors and a vice president.

“Some of the students we interviewed thought it sounded pretty cool,” said team member Daphne Ezer,  who’s graduating with degrees in computer science and biology and a Marshall Scholarship to pursue a doctorate in genetics at Cambridge, UK.

Megan Morikawa,  who combined conservation biology, genetics and applied environmental science for a Program 2 degree, said UC – Berkeley already ran a limited version of the program, “to give students something to talk about.” They did an analysis of only three traits and ran it on campus lab facilities. Just 700 of 5,500 freshman participated, and it was not exactly without controversy.  (see Slate story by IGSP’s Misha Angrist)

The seniors said three kinds of traits might be assessed by these personal genome services: ancestry, “fun traits,” like sticky ear wax, and a host of markers indicating disease susceptibility and carrier status. The tricky thing is the disease traits aren’t a diagnosis, they’re merely a statistical probability of possible susceptibility somewhere down the road.

Pouring such data over the head of a 18-year-old freshman who’s already existentially anxious is fraught with peril, acknowledged Arun Sharma,  a biology major who’s headed for a career in research.  Even with a lot of education, the disease trait readout can scare a person and the ancestry findings might challenge a student’s self-identity, he said. But it might also lead to a great discussion.

After the group did some careful reading and interviewed more than 30 experts, biomedical engineering senior Jenny Pan  said the team is recommending that the university consider trying the personal genome project for freshmen, scanning just the ancestry markers and the fun traits and leaving out the disease traits. With suitable precautions to protect  privacy and prevent students from feeling coerced to participate, the team recommends that the program be run as a small trial for two years before offering it to an entire class.

Personal genomics will be a part of their lives, and already is, Pan said. One of the testing firms, 23andMe, estimates that more than 500 Duke students have already had their genomes sequenced.

Willard said he’s waiting to see the formal write up by the students before seeing what Duke’s next steps might be.