Group of people sitting around a round table.

At a “Learn Your Genome” conversation earlier in the series, UB faculty members Jennifer A. Surtees, PhD, (right of center in black sweater) and Jamal B. Williams, PhD, (second person left of center) share information about genomics and genetics with community members. 

Engaging the Community to Talk About Genetics

By Ellen Goldbaum

Published November 1, 2023

Jamal Williams.
“We want to empower people with knowledge so they can say, for example, ‘yes I’m going to participate in a study or no I don’t,’ so that decisions are driven by knowledge and not by potential conspiracy theories or misinformation. ”
Assistant professor of psychiatry

Jamal B. Williams, PhD, is fascinated by the African genome, all the genetic information that’s contained in people of African descent, including African Americans. When he returned to UB as a new faculty member last year, the native Buffalonian thought: “How do I talk to African Americans in my community about genetics?”

He found the answer this fall by collaborating with faculty at the university’s Genome, Environment and Microbiome Community of Excellence (GEM), and with the Delavan-Grider Community Center, a community institution that he frequently visited as a youth. The four-week series they came up with is called “Learning About Your Genome.”

Williams, now an assistant professor of psychiatry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, brought the series to a close Nov. 1. The previous sessions have engaged community members in his old neighborhood about their genomes and how knowing about genomics can benefit their health and that of their families. 

Effectively Communicating About Science and Research

In the final sesion, they had a chance to paint their genomes while learning more about the role genomics and genetics play in their lives.

The painting session took place at the Delavan-Grider Community Center, 877 East Delavan Ave., Buffalo.  It was led by local artist Jarael Adams, whose “Paint the Town” art studio is located near the Jacobs School.

“We thought it would be good to have a fun event to cap off the series,” says Williams.

At the same time, Williams and Jennifer A. Surtees, PhD, professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School and co-director of GEM, will talk to attendees about genomics and summarize the previous sessions.

After earning his doctorate in neuroscience from UB in 2022, Williams did a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles. When he returned to Buffalo, one of his goals was to find ways to better inform his community about the cutting-edge science he and other scientists in the human genetics field are working on. He and Surtees developed Community Health Speaks, an initiative that aims to strengthen connections with the community.

“I was thinking, ‘hey there’s something called precision medicine happening out here,’” says Williams. “As a Black man, I understand the hesitation to be involved in biomedical research, especially genetics, but as a scientist, I don’t want Black people and other people of color to miss out on the promise that precision medicine may have.”

Surtees adds that it’s all part of GEM’s mission to find more effective and engaging ways to communicate with the community about science and research, and tell our stories. “It’s exciting to be expanding and extending our work and to show how it could have a real impact on research, as well as in our community-building mission,” she says.

Williams has been working with the Department of Psychiatry to build an infrastructure for community engagement, a key part of which has been the ability to hire a community engagement coordinator through the Erie County Public Health Fellowship program.

A colorful paper model of DNA.

The Nov. 1 "Paint Your Genome" session allowed participants to better understand genomics and precision medicine in general while also giving them a chance to get creative. 

Bridging Gaps By Sharing Information

Each session has attracted 12 to 15 people, no small feat on a weeknight, Williams and Surtees note. “This has been a huge win,” says Surtees, adding that the fact that Williams grew up on the East Side and played basketball at the Delavan-Grider center was critical, and having a staff person who could work full time on strengthening those community connections has proven extremely beneficial.

Williams says the Jacobs School and other UB units are perfectly suited to conduct these community programs with infrastructure that already exists. “Community Health Speaks is building the capacity to bridge the gap between interested faculty at UB and the East Side of Buffalo, with three participating community centers,” he says.

The initiative is designed to do the heavy lifting so that those who want to engage in community outreach will have the network and space to do so. Williams adds that the conversations at Delavan-Grider — and at future sessions planned later this fall and next spring — are designed to be wide-ranging and provide answers to questions that attendees raise.

For example, he recently toured Kaleida Health’s Gates Vascular Institute, staffed by the Jacobs School’s world-class neurologists and neurosurgeons, to better understand what community members need to know.

“They told me that Buffalo and Erie County have a higher incidence of stroke than other parts of the state,” says Williams. “They also told me that sometimes people of color come there with stroke symptoms, and a family member has driven them there because the ambulance cost is so high. But they told me that timing is critical; getting there faster in an ambulance has a direct impact on their outcome.”

Previous “Learning About Your Genome” sessions focused on why genomics is important for your health; the connections among genetics, ancestry and identity; and detecting scientific misinformation. 

“We want to empower people with knowledge so they can say, for example, ‘yes I’m going to participate in a study or no I don’t,’ so that decisions are driven by knowledge and not by potential conspiracy theories or misinformation,” Williams explains. “We want to give people information they can use for their everyday life and health.”