In the Paths to Science Policy series, we talk to individuals who have a passion for science policy and are active in advocacy through their various roles and careers. The series aims to inform and guide early career scientists interested in science policy. This series is brought to you by the GSA Early Career Scientist Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee.

We interviewed Vence Bonham, who is the acting deputy director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and the head of the Health Disparities Unit in NHGRI’s Social and Behavioral Research Branch. He provides leadership for the Institute’s health equity and workforce diversity programs. As an associate investigator, Bonham’s research focuses on the social implications of genomic knowledge​​ and the use of social constructs, like race and ethnicity, in biomedical research and clinical care. In addition, Bonham studies sickle cell disease.

I wanted to start with a question about your career path. As someone who started his career with a Juris Doctor degree, what sparked your interest in pursuing an academic career in genetics? 

I came to genomics through my interest in health disparities. I always wanted to be an advocate, particularly to address inequities in our society. I saw my role as a lawyer as an opportunity to address those issues. So, I made a decision to go to law school at Ohio State University with the expectation that I would work on legal and equity issues around education. I later became a healthcare lawyer as my interests grew in health equity. That brought me to medicine and to my engagements in medicine and research. I started doing research with several faculty members, and I loved it. After a well-established career as a university attorney at one institution, associate general counsel at another, and being on the board of the National Association of College and University Attorneys, I decided to make a shift. I went back and did a Health Services Research Fellowship at the American Association of Medical Colleges. Because my real passion was around issues of health disparities, my research interests as a faculty member gravitated to work around that, and I gravitated to people who were scholars and experts in health disparities research. That’s what brought me into genomics.

As an investigator, much of your work explores the use of race and ethnicity data in biomedical research. Racial and ethnic categories are very commonly used to recruit participants in genetic and genomic studies. How do you envision the future of bringing people into studies if we no longer use race and ethnicity as a way to diversify the data? Do you think individuals would know their ancestry prior to being in studies? 

How do we identify individuals? We all have so many different identities, including genetic identities. How do we help scientists, the participants in studies, and the general public understand the nuance of identity? I believe that for the foreseeable future, we will use race, in a variety of areas, in our society and in science because race is real and has an impact on people’s lives. If we didn’t have information about racial and ethnic differences, we would be missing important information, and that includes the issue of who’s participating in studies. Now, as geneticists, I think when you’re designing your study, and you’re describing your populations, it doesn’t have to be the same as NIH inclusion reports. If your study is studying an issue about genetic variation and a specific disease, where it’s really much more about understanding ancestral background, then it may be important that you frame and talk about your study populations in a different way than an inclusion report. So I think that’s the key message with moving beyond race in genomic studies. 

Will people start to know their ancestry? I actually think we already see examples of that with large companies like 23andme and, where people are seeking more information about their background. Receiving that information gives people exposure to their genetic ancestry. So I expect that there will be more understanding that individual participants have about the complexity and the richness of their background. What’s really important right now is that the scientists do a better job with regards to how they describe the populations in their studies, because of the implications it has, both for their own studies and the implementation of new knowledge in healthcare and medicine and for the general public’s understanding of findings within studies.

With descriptions of four categories of race and ethnicity, I do still think that they are limited, right? Because people are a lot more nuanced than one category of something. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that as well with other social constructs like gender. Do you also think that is where the future is moving away from?

I think the answer is definitely yes. And I think the complexity of our identities is so evolving in our ability to talk about it in a way that we used to be so binary, and we’re no longer that. I think it’s important for people to understand those complexities.

How do you think your research influences the policy work that you do? And vice versa? How does that relationship work?

I believe that my research informs my work as an administrator and policymaker. It really enhances my ability to look at issues. I see my research really helping me to understand issues, to be able to communicate examples, and to talk about issues that are important around equity. I see my research being really informed by that. But then, it also flips around. What I’m hearing and what I’m learning from a policy perspective gives me an opportunity for new types of questions to ask in my research. So, it’s really a cycle, but that also makes it fun! 

It seems like science policy in the US is in constant flux, depending on who is in power. In your opinion, what do you think are some of the challenges that we’ll see in the United States? What advice would you give an early career scientist interested in policy?

I would encourage people, while they’re in their fellowships, in their trades, in graduate school, or postdocs, to get exposed and be an engaged citizen. From there, you can determine whether a policy shift is what you’re interested in. Your expertise as a scientist is important to policy making, and there is recognition of that. There are always talks and engagement activities. Each district has a congress member, the state legislators, so get involved. I think that also shows the sincerity of your interest in policy to show that you’re spending your own time getting engaged in the process.

Any concluding remarks?

What I hope came across in this conversation is that careers are not straight lines. People can make different decisions along their careers. There are ways to bridge your knowledge to help your next step in your career. 

Graduate student and postdoctoral leaders from the Early Career Scientist Committees of the GSA.

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