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Students Step Back in Time with DNA

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Students Step Back in Time with DNA

An international project that hopes to chart the migration of mankind made a stop in Chicago yesterday. With a film crew rolling, National Geographic talked with students who took part in its Genographic Project. Chicago Public Schools was the first district in the U.S. to officially join the project. Over the last several months, hundreds of students have learned about their ancestors, and where they came from thousands of years ago.

This is a project that began with students at Prosser Career Academy High School, sitting at their desks and talking excitedly, about to scrape the insides of their cheeks for 60 seconds with a swab.

McKAY: OK, now you don’t have to go digging in until you poke it through your cheek. OK, and you can’t be light. Swab with some vigor.

History teacher Brian McKay leads the countdown on a snowy day back in February.

McKay: OK, ready?
STUDENTS: No.
McKay: 1, 2, 3, Go.

The scene looks more like a dentist office of students brushing their teeth, than a history class. The students are collecting tiny bits of DNA, so the Genographic Project can track their ancestors back through time. Spencer Wells is the director.

WELLS: The project is a concerted scientific effort to answer that basic human question, where did we all come from? It’s a question I think all of us ask at one point or another in our lives. It turns out we’re carrying the answer inside of our selves.

Prosser student Kinga Urbanowska is seeking that answer. She was born in Poland, where her parents are from.

URBANOWSKA: I pretty just know they came from Poland, and I don’t know the rest. I want to find out more and further than just Poland, ‘cuz they were probably somewhere else.

Her classmate, Diana Argueta, says both of her parents are natives of El Salvador.

KALSNES: What are you hoping to learn here?

ARGUETA: Where I come from. If I actually had an interesting past life. For real.

Argueta sees this as an adventure.

ARGUETA: Even though we’re in the present, we’re going to venture to go back in the past.

Here’s how the process works. Most of our genome is a mixture from our parents, and our ancestors. But the Y chromosome that boys get from their fathers, and the mitochondrial DNA we all get from our mothers, come to us essentially unchanged. Sometimes there’s a mistake made in copying all that information, and geneticists trace these markers back in time.

Spencer Wells says all of our ancestors started out in Africa, up to 60,000 years ago.

WELLS: We’ve only been diverging from each other for about 2,000 human generations, which is really virtually no time at all in a geological sense. So we’re all effectively cousins, Africans under the skin, if you will.

That message of a shared origin is something Brian McKay hopes his students will get.

McKAY: In our classes, we talk about many terrible events in history that get caused when one group of people don’t like another group of people. We talk about world wars, we talk about the Holocaust. Hopefully with the world getting smaller and smaller every day, they can learn that those kinds of ways of thinking just don’t work today.

But the Genographic Project isn’t without controversy. The test only shows a fraction of a person’s ancestors.Yet Priscilla Wald wonders what happens if participants learn something unexpected. Wald’s an English professor at Duke University, who’s on the Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy steering committee.

WALD: We put so much weight in our culture on this question of identity and on this question of ancestry. And so giving this information, that can be misleading, can be really dangerous and damaging for somebody.

Wald says there need to be structures in place to help people deal with the results.

But those concerns didn’t bother the Prosser high schoolers, who joined other students from across the district in a debriefing yesterday about their experience.

Junior Arielle Gonzalez says she didn’t expect what her test results showed.

GONZALES: Mine, I stayed in Africa, which is really surprising, because a lot of my mother’s side, they came from Europe. That’s what I was always told, they came from a little island off of Spain.

The results also surprised Kinga Urbanowska. Her family is Polish, but she learned her ancestors spent time in Western Europe, and originated in Africa.

URBANOWSKA: It would never go to my mind that we’re all from the same place, from Africa. Never in the world, I’d would think that we’d be related, at all.

She now wants to travel to all the places her ancestors lived, thousands of years ago. Gonzales says her relatives were so interested, they started swapping stories about her family history.

GONZALEZ: It just proves we’re all from the same place, so racism shouldn’t be happening.

It’s a far-reaching science experiment, that’s brought these students closer together. They started jokingly calling each other brother and sister.

I’m Lynette Kalsnes, Chicago Public Radio.

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