Intercultural in Action: Define the Word Epigenetics


The back of my business card says “Is your message getting lost in translation from English to English?” Sometimes that can mean cultural differences but more often it has to do with areas of expertise or your industry…as in “I speak Engineer.”

In this case I was co-writing a blog post with a client who is a Psychiatrist who specializes in Trauma Recovery. The post was commenting on a segment from PBS NewsHour about a recent study of children of Holocaust survivors and how trauma experienced by one generation can be passed on to the next. Her commentary said “The study of epigenetics suggests that events can change how genes express themselves.”

I don’t know about you, but my first question was “what does epigenetics mean?” Considering that website content should be written so anyone, even a high-schooler can read it, and, lingering from high school where you knew your teacher would ask if you included a word in your homework you didn’t know (as in ‘I suspect you copied this right out of the encyclopedia’), I set out to find out.

The dictionary definitions were no help at all:

  • An epigenetic trait is a stably heritable phenotype resulting from changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence; or
  • The study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself; Or
  • Of, relating to, or produced by the chain of developmental processes in epigenesis that lead from genotype to phenotype after the initial action of the genes.

As an alternative to now having to look up phenotype and epigenesis which could take up 150 of my 200 word blog post, and in the spirit of a true value of LinkedIn…who do I know in my circle who could explain to me what Epigenetics is? I came up with two: A PhD Geneticist and a friend’s son who just started his senior year in high school and who did an internship with a geneticist over the summer.

And this goes back to the original question of how many people it takes to define the word epigenetics. Apparently three—but it was worthwhile, because each brought a different perspective that made the whole more rich (note…this is the essence of interculturalism).

From the high school student:
Life experiences can effect genetic code expression.

From the psychiatrist/trauma recovery expert:
That once that genetic code expression is changed in one generation, studies suggest it can be passed on from parent to child.

From the professional geneticist:
Unrelated to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” endlessly repeating in my brain genetic expression means genes can be turned on or off.  For example when eating. As food passes through your stomach certain genes in the digestive system will turn “on” to produce proteins that break down food. When they are done, the genes turn “off” until the next time you eat. Epigenetics says that environment or events—something other than pure biology–can impact when genes turn on and off.

In my work I help people explain things on their website, in their communications, social media, etc., in “layman’s terms,” so that anyone can understand it in 8 seconds or less. And, as T.S. Elliot said, “If I’d had more time I would have written a shorter letter,” it’s not always easy and requires a broader base of knowledge to cull the essence.

In summary, I’m glad I caught the high-schooler before his bedtime.

How do you explain your work to someone else? How do you go about learning something you don’t know?