Analyzing This (and That)

LAS grad and Columbia professor Dvora Sanders thinks outside the lab

December 28, 2012

“When you’re doing an experiment, you have to actually physically do it, and you have to be good at it,” explains the Brooklyn native and Prospect Park Yeshiva alum, who earned her B.S. in Biology from Touro in 1997 (and briefly taught there in the mid-2000s while pursuing a fellowship at Columbia) before acquiring a Ph.D. in Genetics at Rockefeller University. “There are some people who are really good at making sure that they’re doing it well; they know how to ask the right questions. There’s a skill involved in wet-lab work. Doing the computation analysis, it’s math—it’s more clean…. I like, ‘You do this, do that, it comes out yes [or] no, and you move on to the next one.’”

Over the past couple years, Sanders has been applying that numerical intellect by working alongside Columbia’s Professor Deborah Hasin to study the components that influence psychiatric disorders. For example, Sanders and her supervisor have been assessing patterns of alcohol abuse among Russian-immigrant Jews in Israel as compared to global Jewish populations. Their findings provide some insight into how these issues need to be considered from multiple perspectives—heredity, environmental et al—prior to instituting corrective policies or rehabilitation.

“[Russian immigrants] have a much different drinking culture than Jews in other parts of the world and Israelis,” she says. “Jews, even in America, and Israelis on average, tend to drink less than Russians as a group. Until recently, there wasn’t such a problem with adolescent drinking and so on. One of the things we were looking at was, ‘What happened? Immigrants from Russia have been in Israel more than 20 years. How have the drinking cultures changed and what seems to be different?’ There’s nothing we know that’s genetically different. Jews all over the world tend to be more similar to each other than the non-Jews they live among, so it’s something cultural. What we’ve looked at in that case was acceptable drinking behavior, and found that even today, the Russian people who came as immigrants find it more acceptable to drink in certain social situations than Israelis who were born in Israel.”

After arriving at this conclusion, their next step was recommending ways to prevent the culture gap from manifesting a larger national dilemma. “One of the things we’ve been looking at is, ‘Well, if you can’t change somebody’s behavior, but you can have some sort of program to change people’s view on what’s acceptable, then that might change the negative behaviors,’” Sanders says. As for whether it can work, she points to a universal alcohol-related taboo. “Basically nobody thinks driving and driving is acceptable,” she reasons. “And that maybe wasn’t the case 20 years ago. With public-health messages, you can actually change people’s beliefs, and that could change their behavior without having to tell them, ‘You’re doing the wrong thing.’”

While Sanders finds her work stimulating and impacting, and she also enjoys helping ambitious students discover their path of interest, the mother of five doesn’t have some life-defining, independent-study project in mind down the road. Providing her contribution to science, witnessing its effect on positive social change and all the while playing mom ensures she’s plenty fulfilled for now.

“My boss keeps telling me that if I would want to apply for funding to try to get a larger position that I might be able to do it,” Sanders says, conceding, “Right now, I’m just happy to do my 20 hours a week of work and keep the rest of the time to take care of my family.”