image title

Tips for surviving family table talk this Thanksgiving

November 21, 2017

ASU experts share how students and families alike can handle potential 'millennial' complaints and probing questions

Thanksgiving brings us closer together, but our conversations across generations in a family can sometimes drive us farther apart.

“We’re forced to spend these long hours with people, some of whom we may not like very much, and that is stressful,” said Vincent Waldron, Arizona State University intergenerational communications professor.

It’s rare for all generations, from the silent generation to boomers to Gen Z, to find themselves in one room. According to Waldron, our main hindrance is that we don’t “ask interesting, meaningful questions and we’re OK with just superficial small talk.”

So we’ve compiled some intergenerational complaints and probing questions you might hear at the table and given an ASU expert the chance to give you some talking points to keep the peace and understand your family more.

“How’s your love life going?”

black and white photo of people sharing a milkshake

It’s not nosiness per se but a biologically driven question, according to evolutionary biologist Michael Angilletta.

“There’s this thing called parent-offspring conflict where offspring just want parents to keep taking care of them as much as possible and parents want to be able to take care of more than just one child and then take care of themselves,” he said. 

“The conflict can tie to love life, too, because you know if someone is in a stable relationship they’re on their way to forming a stable partnership, which ultimately leads to grandkids — and I’m going tell you that’s one of the greatest biological drivers of our behavior, right?”

“Back in my day, we didn’t have these high-tech gizmos …”

Electric Building at World Fair

There can be a generational gap in technology, but it’s important to remember that technology isn’t inherently a smartphone, but even a wheel or lever, according to historian Christopher Jones

“The grandparents of boomers grew up in a world with little plumbing, no electricity and almost never traveled faster than the pace of walking, but their grandkids flew in planes, drove in cars, lived in electrified homes with good plumbing,” Jones said.

“It’s a recurrent pattern that people assume they are living through radical technological innovation of the types not seen before. 

“These changes — experienced on a daily basis — made a far greater difference in terms of personal comfort, convenience and health than anything Silicon Valley has generated in the last generation and were quite disruptive in their own day to those living through these technological transformations.”

But according to counseling psychologist Ashley Randall, there is something known as technoference, where even the mere presence of a cellphone, as long as it’s within view, “decreases your perception of the quality of the social interaction.”

“Put your cellphone away and allow room for the cranberry sauce instead,” Randall advised.

“Younger kids, you’re just not working hard enough.” 

man at desk

Much like boomers can’t retire like their parents’ generation, many younger Gen Xers and millennials don’t have the same relationship with work their parents did, according to Pamela Stewart, a senior lecturer in history and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute lecturer.

“Part of the reason a younger generation is looking for that satisfaction and not only a paycheck is that to some degree they observed people that they thought had stable jobs lose them,” she said. 

“If you could potentially end up losing a job then maybe you should be able to get some job satisfaction along the way.”

“I don’t understand your texts. Why can’t you write in proper English?”

drawing of two people from the Middle Ages

It took until the Renaissance for dictionaries with prescribed spellings and usage to appear, said linguistics professor Elly Van Gelderen. And some historical texts, such as the 15th-century Paston family letters, are as hard to read as some of your children’s texts. 

In that context, van Gelderen suggests that a little textual ambiguity shouldn’t be painted as the demise of grammar and spelling.

“Texting doesn’t seem to have a standard, and that’s why it reminds me of the Middle Ages,” she said. “In between 1100 and 1500 you have no standard so people just write the way they think they speak. In the moment, texting has given people the freedom to not be so prescriptive, and by prescriptive I mean following these silly rules.”

 “You kids and your selfies.”

Virgin Mary and baby

It’s not just the latest generation that’s self-obsessed. Art historian Corine Schleif points out that middle class and wealthy patrons painted themselves into the foreground of pictures of salvation history, including the birth of Christ or the Crucifixion.

“It’s a way to immortalize yourself, as portraits are, and in a sense with a selfie, too,” she said. “There was that kind of empathy that was developed through this kind of imagery, and I think that happens with selfies today.”

So if a friend takes a picture of herself in an important place, Schleif said she can relate to that in a different way than if she were just to open a magazine or look on the internet for a picture. 

“You know you get that from your Uncle Johnny.”

dna strand

They might be hard to deal with and Thanksgiving might be all the time you’d like to spend with family, but for computational biologist Melissa Wilson Sayres — who works on interpreting DNA — family is as much based in our real-life relationships as our genetic ones.

“Your genetics don’t define you; it’s the people around you and the people you interact with,” she said. “What if you’re adopted, right? It’s still the person you grew up with and probably share your microbiome with. Your complaints about your parents and your nosy cousin and all of this stuff, it’s just so much more important than genetics — and I say that as someone who devotes my life to genetics.”

Top photo: Holiday postcard from 1914. Images courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections, wikimedia and

Deanna Dent

Photographer , ASU Now


image title

ASU researcher suggests broader public debate on gene modification

November 21, 2017

Super strong people. Elephants the size of house cats. Whippets with the build of pitbulls. Apples that don’t turn brown. With the CRISPRCRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which are the hallmark of a bacterial defense system that forms the basis for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology. gene-editing technology, the possibilities are endless, but genetic modification has typically been considered the domain of scientists.

Then last week, gene modification went off the rails with news that self-proclaimed “biohacker” Josiah Zayner had just injected muscle cells into his forearm, making him the first person known to have edited his own DNA. He did it using a kit available online based on CRISPR.

Is Zayner’s self-experiment rogue science or the wave of the future? For answers, ASU Now turned to Arizona State University's Emma Frow, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Her research focuses on standards and governance in contemporary life sciences, with a particular focus on synthetic biology. Frow says individuals like Zayner who choose to experiment on themselves are potentially putting their health and safety at risk, and she points to the need for a broader public debate about gene modification.

Woman in blue shirt smiling

Emma Frow

Question: Does anyone have any idea what is going to happen to Zayner (physically, that is)?

Answer: I don’t think we do. Zayner injected himself with DNA hoping to knock out a gene called myostatin that blocks muscle growth. His goal is to see increases in the amount of his forearm muscle over the next few months. Who knows whether this will happen. My guess is that his experiment is likely to be inconclusive.

The link between myostatin and muscle production has been well studied. For example, there’s a particularly beefy breed of cattle that naturally lacks myostatin. And an experiment was reported earlier in the year where scientists in China used CRISPR to knock the myostatin gene out of beagle embryos in order to produce extra-muscular dogs. Out of over 60 embryos they tried, they succeeded in completely knocking out the myostatin gene in two beagles. This tells you something about the challenge of getting CRISPR to work reliably.

Q: This isn’t like getting a tattoo or taking some weird new drug. Could alterations spread through his children, if he has any?

A: I don’t believe so. For a specific gene-editing change to pass on to Zayner’s children, it would have to happen in his germline cells (i.e. his sperm). Zayner injected himself in his forearm, with the intent of performing localized gene editing in his arm muscle cells. I don’t think we can say for sure exactly which cells in his body, if any, are likely to be edited, but the likelihood of any changes being passed to subsequent generations seems very slim.

Q: Could alterations be undone?

A: Because Zayner’s self-experiment is not confined to a very specific, controlled subset of cells, identifying exactly which cells (if any) have been edited will be difficult — and targeting exactly those cells to undo any edits even more challenging. This hasn’t been designed as a reversible experiment.

Q: What are problems with this that come to mind?

A: Zayner’s work is explicitly geared towards putting biotechnology in the hands of citizens, and his experiment points to the growing possibility of individuals experimenting on themselves with CRISPR technology. CRISPR gene-editing technology is still quite new, and there are several safety and efficacy questions that still need to be addressed. Individuals who choose to experiment on themselves are potentially putting their health and safety at risk.

More generally, Zayner’s provocative experiment points to the need for a broader public debate about how we want to make use of CRISPR gene editing as a society. Currently in the U.S., there are tighter regulations for biotechnology research funded with public funds than with private money. Zayner funds his work from private sources, and what he is doing is not illegal (not all countries would see this the same way). But it does point to a need for public discussion about whether and how we would like to see CRISPR gene editing evolve, and the kinds of uses for this technology we see as appropriate. 

Top image courtesy of Pixabay