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“Almost every disease is influenced in some manner by inheritance”

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2015 - Spring


How do our inherited traits, both genetic and environmental, determine who we are? We asked Yale faculty and students to reflect on this question in many ways for this issue of Yale Medicine. Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., discussed what he has inherited from those who served as dean before him, and the importance of evolution and heredity to science.

This issue of Yale Medicine explores the concept of inheritance from many angles. What makes this subject so rich?
Almost every disease is influenced in some manner by inheritance, including not only genetics and epigenetics, but that which we “inherit” from the environment our parents establish for us. While many diseases involve random environmental factors, our response to those elements is determined by our genetic background.

As a scientist, what interests you most about inheritance?
Evolution has a profound effect on everything we are, including the diseases that affect us and our response to those diseases. When humans were content to live until their children became independent, evolution was our friend. Now we live long past the age required for survival of our species, and we are on our own with no support from evolution.

You are the 16th dean of the School of Medicine. What have you inherited from your predecessors?
I have inherited many great things from previous deans, among them the Yale system of medical education, and a preeminent medical school.

What do you imagine our legacy—that of YSM of the early 21st century—will be?
I hope that our legacy will be that we have advanced excellence in education and research, while introducing a renewed commitment to an outstanding clinical practice.