A better approach: Studying genetics by accounting for sex differences

ASU Professor Melissa Wilson, colleagues unveil approach in new publication

May 15, 2023

Biological sex differences, such as differences in hormones, reproductive organs and chromosomes, can influence how our genes are read and how they interact with other factors in our bodies. This means genes may influence certain traits or diseases differently depending on sex.

According to Arizona State University Professor Melissa Wilson, from the School of Life Sciences, failing to account for these sex differences in genetic studies can lead to crucial information being overlooked and incomplete findings. By considering sex differences in genetic studies, scientists can gain a more precise and comprehensive understanding of how genes shape traits and contribute to the development of diseases. Headshot of Melissa Wilson in an outdoor setting. Professor Melissa Wilson and colleagues developed a set of guidelines and recommendations that are expected to profoundly impact future genetic research and contribute to more accurate and comprehensive findings. Photo courtesy Melissa Wilson

Wilson has published a new paper in the prestigious journal Cell titled “Quality control and analytical best practices for testing genetic models of sex differences in large populations.”

In the publication, Wilson and colleagues developed a set of guidelines and recommendations that are expected to profoundly impact future genetic research and contribute to more accurate and comprehensive findings.

“The group came about as a set of people with complementary expertise all focused on different aspects of incorporating sex as a biological variable into genetics and genomics analyses,” Wilson said. 

Genetic studies have traditionally focused on examining the entire population as a single entity, disregarding potential differences between sexes. However, Wilson’s research highlights the critical role that sex plays in genetic analyses and argues for the adoption of a sex-aware approach. 

“Most studies of human genomics still exclude the sex chromosomes and do not appropriately investigate how disease risk in males and females may differ,” Wilson said. 

The team meticulously analyzed existing studies and uncovered a wealth of evidence indicating that ignoring sex differences in genetic analyses can lead to skewed results and incomplete conclusions.

In the publication, Wilson and co-authors first talk about how to ensure the data to be analyzed is reliable; then, they give an overview and best practices for testing genetic models and mechanisms that may cause differences between males and females in how they show traits. Finally, they discuss important things to consider when studying these differences. 

“We give several tangible guidelines for how to incorporate sex as a biological variable, from a genomic level to an individual level, that researchers can incorporate into their analyses,” Wilson said. 

In addition to its potential impact on genetic research, this groundbreaking work has enormous implications for precision medicine and personalized health care. Recognizing the importance of sex differences in genetic research can facilitate the development of targeted treatments and interventions, ultimately improving health outcomes. 

As other scientists keep building upon these findings, the hope is that a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of genetics will emerge, revolutionizing the landscape of genetic research and medicine as we know it.

Wilson is also affiliated with the Center for Evolution and Medicine and the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution.

Anaissa Ruiz-Tejada

Graduate Science Writer, School of Life Sciences

ASU Cronkite School convocation honors graduates, retiring faculty

May 15, 2023

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication celebrated the accomplishments of nearly 390 graduates at its spring 2023 convocation ceremony while honoring four distinguished faculty members who are retiring at the end of this semester.

The Cronkite School recognized associate professors Xu Wu and Marianne Barrett, Professor of Practice John Misner and Kristin Gilger, Reynolds Professor in Business Journalism, during the ceremony on May 12 at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe. Cronkite School graduates sit in a line wearing their graduation gowns, hats and stoles. The Cronkite School awarded degrees to 387 students during the ceremony on May 12 at the Desert Financial Arena in Tempe. Download Full Image

Gilger and Barrett, the Louise Solheim Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication, both served in associate dean and senior associate dean roles during their tenure at Cronkite. Gilger led the Cronkite School as interim dean from 2020 to 2021.

Misner served as the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship’s curator, senior advisor to the dean and senior advisor to the ASU Foundation.

The ceremony also paid tribute to former faculty member Mark Reda, who passed away earlier this month.

Adam Symson, president and CEO of the E.W. Scripps Company, delivered the keynote address to the graduating class. The convocation served as a homecoming for Symson, who first joined Scripps in 2002 as executive producer of investigations and special projects for ABC15 in Phoenix.

Symson reflected on his rise from an investigative reporter and producer to news executive, saying he learned just as much from his failures as he did from his successes.

“If you aren’t failing in life, you likely are not trying hard enough, and not taking the necessary risks in your personal or professional lives,” Symson said. “I can tell you without a doubt that what has propelled me from the assignment desk to the C-suite has been a willingness to take risks, gather a handful of successes, but just as important, pick myself up off the floor after getting punched in the gut.”

Symson said he “stumbled plenty of times” as a journalist and CEO, submitting a reporting tape and receiving zero job offers, applying for jobs and getting rejected, pursuing stories that didn’t pan out and launching products that failed to capture an audience.

“I’ve had them all. And each hurdle, every stumble and failure strengthened my resolve to do it again, but differently and better,” he said.

Those experiences paved the way for his successes, he said.

Symson lauded the graduates for enduring through “the most dynamic of times,” which included a pandemic, along with a changing economy and political landscape.

“Just think about what you all have gone through over the last four years,” he said. “You’ve been handling the real world … and are already exercising the resilience necessary to succeed, no matter what life throws your way next.”

In total, 387 students received degrees, including 77 with a Bachelor of Arts in mass communication and media studies, 100 with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication, 80 with a Bachelor of Arts in sports journalism, 57 with a Bachelor of Science in digital audiences and six with a Bachelor of Arts in digital media literacy.

The Cronkite School also awarded 65 master’s degrees — 47 with a Master of Science in digital audience strategy, 17 Master of Mass Communication degrees and one Master of Arts in investigative journalism. Two graduates received PhDs in journalism and mass communication.

Student convocation speaker Autriya Maneshni encouraged her fellow graduates to be patient with themselves and not expect to get everything right on the first try.

Maneshni recalled waking up on her first day of classes after she fell asleep with her favorite green pen in her bed. She discovered green stains all over herself and her comforter and only had 30 minutes until she had to attend class.

The experience reminded her that the most terrible days can blossom into an “amazing experience,” she said.

“Everything really does happen for a reason even if we are blind to that reason at first,” she said. "Don’t be so hard on yourself. ... Immerse yourself in the moment and focus on the present.”

Jamar Younger

Associate Editor, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication