MPG series “primed” to reach a wider audience

Haley Bridger, October 10th, 2012

Back when Christopher Newton-Cheh was a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad, he and a group of other postdocs would get together and hold informal, journal club-like discussions. The young scientists would all read one or two recent journal articles and discuss the findings and techniques, helping them stay abreast of recent work in the ever-evolving field of genetics. Over the years, those once small and informal talks among a handful of Broadies have evolved into something open to the wider Broad community. Known as the Primer on Medical and Population Genetics (MPG), the series draws researchers from across the institute interested in hearing about and discussing major topics in genetic research. The talks have recently been made available to an even wider audience, as scientists from across the globe tune in to YouTube, iTunesU, and the Broad’s website to watch talks by some of the leaders in the field.

“The primers arose from these weekly, informal discussions that I and other postdocs would set up. They kept increasing in size, and eventually snowballed into a set of topics that are perennial requirements for anybody who really wants to get up to speed in the field,” says Newton-Cheh, who is now a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Newton-Cheh studies the genetics of sudden death and blood pressure variation at MGH’s Center for Genetic Research as well as at the Broad Institute.

The primers are first and foremost aimed at technicians, grad students, postdocs, and established investigators just entering the field of complex trait genetics, but anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of the basic principles of this research area is welcome to tune in. Viewers can subscribe via iTunesU to automatically download new talks in the series as they become available. Topics of the primers include complex and Mendelian diseases, human genetic variation, genotyping and sequencing methods, statistics, and analysis.

“The primer on Medical and Population Genetics is a very entry-level discussion of topics across the range of human genetics that have been evolving incredibly rapidly recently,” says Newton-Cheh. “The talks are targeted to a very basic level for postdocs or grad students, but frankly, many of the people who attend are senior investigators from across the Boston community who want to learn more about human genetics.”

The first four talks of the season (delivered by David Altshuler, Jim Gusella, Joel Hirschhorn, and Mark Daly) explore the genetics of both complex diseases (common diseases with many contributing factors) and Mendelian diseases (generally arising from a single, mutated gene) as well as statistics and genetic variation. Upcoming topics will include copy number variation (in which large segments of the genome are missing or repeated) and the importance of defining the characteristics of human diseases.

The talks, which have taken place at the Broad Institute every fall for the last several years, tend to draw a crowd of between 70 and 100 Broad researchers each week. Talks from this year’s series are being posted online each week (with additional talks from previous years also available on the Broad’s website and YouTube channel), and Newton-Cheh and others are happy to see that audience grow.

“The Broad has among its missions the development of methods and tools…and the dissemination of that information,” says Newton-Cheh. “Here, just through the internet, people can sit down and hear the same things that folks here at the Broad are hearing.”