‘Casting a wider net’ when researching genetic and molecular factors of disease

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Elsie Gyang Ross

For vascular surgeon and research scientist Elsie Gyang Ross, MD, the world of data science might hold some of the answers to the kind of healthcare disparities on which the current cultural climate has refocused minds.

Ross, an assistant professor of vascular surgery at the Stanford University Medical Center in Stanford, California, runs a research lab—largely focused on data science—that is starting to look into some of the issues related to disparities in healthcare.

“Something that’s getting a lot more attention now is using genetics to revolutionize how we deliver medicine and make things more personalized,” she explains. “But what often doesn’t get mentioned is the genetic data that we have for the most part comes from a very narrow band of the population, typically Caucasians or people of European descent. What that means for precision health for minorities does not get discussed a lot. And it has the potential to further disadvantage a group of people who tend to be already disadvantaged in the healthcare system.”

Ross’ research zeroes in on the use of big data and advanced analytics to find novel risk factors for peripheral artery disease (PAD) and improve risk prediction for vascular disease through precision health approaches.

In this vein, Ross is about to begin work in the vascular space aimed at broadening the data pool—meaning the recruitment of a more diverse patient population—so that the findings are more widely applicable.

“I’m soon to be working on a project where we’re looking at molecular mechanisms of peripheral vascular disease with the goal of casting a wider net for recruitment—including minorities specifically in our research on the molecular level—just to make sure we’re not making conclusions based on a narrow band of the population.”

On a personal level, Ross says she enjoyed a medical education and residency free of racial bias, a time inspired by an environment that included a number of fellow African American vascular residents and surgeons positioned above her as her career trajectory developed. “I think where race and, quite frankly, more gender has played a role is in being on faculty, mostly because I start to wonder when I have interactions with patients what their perceptions of me are.”

As the cultural moment plays out, Ross believes this time the renewed focus could be different. “Just within my university, I’m a part of two different departments and divisions, and every committee or department I’ve been a part of has talked about this,” she says. “Whereas, before, one or two people might be interested in saying something but it never became a concerted effort to make changes within our purview.”

Ross also sees a degree of complacency in the U.S. over equity and racial medical outcomes. “I remember when I was applying for colleges, and affirmative action started to become a dirty word, then eventually there were laws and lawsuits about whether or not you could use race for admissions practices,” she says. Then came the election of President Barack Obama to the White House. Eyes were taken off the ball, Ross considers.

“There are issues of systematic racism against minorities, and the only way to solve these issues is to systematically figure out ways to improve the stature and well- being of minorities. That involves being more proactive.”

The problems start early, she goes on. “By the time you’re looking to recruit someone for medical school, or for faculty, it’s just way too late.”

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