Gene Week encourages healthy living


For Gene Week, Sigma Delta Tau sponsored a free yoga class at the Illini Hillel house Wednesday night. The first 60 people that walked in the door received a free yoga mat.

By Steffie Drucker

Wednesday marked the kick-off of the fourth annual Gene Week at the University. Gene Week’s programs focus on the importance of genetic health and is sponsored by several groups, including the Center for Jewish Genetics, the Genetics Student Leadership Committee and the Martin and Mary L. Boyer Foundation.

“While we know that the idea of getting married and families is probably very far removed from your average college student’s mind, we want to tie your genetic health to just being proactive with your health in general,” said Taryn Gluskin, assistant director of the Center for Jewish Genetics. “ … We’re here to plant the seeds, to get the conversation going, knowing that there are things you can do now to be proactive for the future.”

The term “Jewish genetic disorder” describes a group of conditions that are unusually common among Jews of Ashkenazi descent, according to the Center for Jewish Genetics’ website. The website also states that one in four Jews is a carrier of a Jewish genetic disorder.

Gluskin explained that everyone is a carrier for something, making genetic health important for people from all different backgrounds to know. 

“Depending on your ethnicity, certain disorders are more prevalent or more common for your particular group — but everyone is a carrier,” she said.

Gluskin said some genes, like certain cancer genes, are affected by environmental factors so it’s crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle in order to prevent the possibility of having cancer. 

“While your carrier status doesn’t change … there are things you can do today to help prevent the risk of you getting cancer,” she said.

Gene Week, a program that’s unique to the University, began when former student Sondra Feldman gained an interest in Jewish genetic health while interning at the Center. 

“She realized that her network at school really didn’t know much about Jewish genetics or that testing was available,” Gluskin said.

Four years later, the Center for Jewish Genetics has partnered with various Jewish organizations around campus to present a week of programs that connect genetic health to general health and well-being.

The week kicked off with a yoga class at Illini Hillel on Wednesday, and will continue with an educational program on breast and ovarian cancer at the Sigma Delta Tau house Thursday and health-oriented Shabbat services at Illini Hillel on Friday and Illini Chabad on Saturday.

“I think the main idea of the (yoga) event is to promote healthy living in all aspects,” said Erez Cohen, executive director of Illini Hillel. “Including working out, keeping a healthy lifestyle, whether it’s eating right or getting tested for different diseases.”

A genetics-related registered student organization, the Genetics Student Leadership Committee, was also founded at UIUC in 2011. Alex Rudolph, a 2013 graduate, was pre-med and looking for a volunteer opportunity during her sophomore year at the University when she received an email about Gene Week through her sorority.

“I originally got involved with the center because I was motivated to spread awareness of genetic disorders more prevalent in the Jewish community,” she said in an email. “I truly believe that making others aware of their genetic health will aid in the prevention of single-gene disorders like Tay-Sachs as well as multi-factorial diseases like heart disease and diabetes.”

While an intern at the center, Rudolph created a YouTube video about genetic health and genetic screening. 

“My goal was to raise awareness to the other interns I worked with,” she said. “(I was) trying to figure out a way to get to people and let them know what a Jewish genetic disorder is.”

Cohen emphasized that, even though there are some disorders that are prevalent among the Jewish people, genetic health should be important to people from all backgrounds as it could include testing for diseases like Alzheimer’s in the family.

The Center for Jewish Genetics generally tests for 19 different genetic disorders common in the Jewish community. Each pregnancy has about a 25 percent chance of being affected by a given genetic disorder if both partners are carriers of the gene, Gluskin said. If a couple finds that their child would have a certain genetic disorder, Gluskin said the center has three volunteer boards composed of experts in the field to help guide the parents down whatever path they choose.

“That’s why we’re here — to simply (provide) the tools,” she said. “In this particular case, knowledge is power.”

Steffie can be reached at [email protected]