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(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Campus Briefs

images of people with different pronounsGetting they/them pronouns right

A growing number of people use they/them pronouns to signal their gender identity, but for many people, use of “they” to refer to a single individual takes some getting used to.

Results of a recent University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study showed the social trend of announcing preferred pronouns, which is often seen in email signatures, Twitter bios and Zoom settings, improves how pronouns are understood. “Announcing one’s pronouns matters, and explicitly saying that someone uses they/them pronouns increases the chance that others will successfully interpret the pronoun in this way in the future,” said Jennifer Arnold, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor of psychology and neuroscience who led the study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

There is a psychology of language and Arnold studies the mental steps that underlie the way we process language.

Singular “they” has been around for centuries. But its frequency and range of uses are expanding to those who identify as non-binary, that is, those who do not exclusively identify as male or female. Using the pronouns that a person goes by is considered a sign of respect.


Dana RiceMeet Dana Rice

The new assistant dean of master’s degree programs at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Rice researches how the criminal legal system impacts communities of color and their health. “My focus is on understanding mass incarceration and its impact on public health,” she told The Well. “I’m trying to understand the ways in which the criminal legal system in the United States disproportionately impacts communities of color, which ultimately affects their health outcomes. It comes down to recognizing that our current system was built on structural and institutional racism and imagining an alternative approach to achieving justice, safety and well-being.”

Rice thinks about the system as having multiple starting points, beginning with what she frames as mass criminalization. “Our society has been structured in a way that has caused people of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as other social identities, to have more frequent contact with the criminal legal system and to receive a more severe response from those actors,” she said. “This engagement disrupts community cohesiveness, among other things — but more importantly, is not effective at creating safe and healthy communities. Couple that fact with all of the other social and economic challenges these communities experience — like poverty and poor housing — and that’s a starting point for understanding how the system and our policies impact health outcomes. Communities that are suffering due to disinvestment in social support systems are the same communities that tend to be overpoliced and underprotected, neither of which creates an environment for health and wellness.”


Ancestral diversity affects biomarkers of kidney function, study finds

DNA methylation (DNAm) is known to be linked with kidney function, but earlier research had not revealed whether human diversity affects this association.

Now, a study has reported several new trans-ethnic and ethnic-specific DNAm associations with kidney function. This is an important finding for public health because it informs future steps to understand and address epigenomic diversity.

The study paper, titled “Epigenome-wide association study of kidney function identifies trans-ethnic and ethnic-specific loci,” was published online April 30 by Genome Medicine.

Corresponding author Nora Franceschini, MD, MPH, is a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Co-authors from the Gillings School are Anna Batorsky, a doctoral student and graduate research assistant in the Department of Biostatistics and Eric Whitsel, MD, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology — and the many other co-authors represent institutions in multiple countries.

“To understand ethnic-specific and trans-ethnic DNAm variation relating to kidney function, we conducted the largest ever epigenome-wide association study (EWAS) of kidney function on more than 10,000 individuals, including European Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and African Americans,” Franceschini explains.