Curious About Your Ancestry?

Chris Clark, a student at Fordham University, swabs his cheek for a DNA sample as he takes part in the New York City Ancestry Project. (Patrick McGovern/ NY City Lens)

Chris Clark, a student at Fordham University, swabs his cheek for a DNA sample as he takes part in the New York City Ancestry Project. (Patrick McGovern/ NY City Lens)

Over 200 students from eight area colleges and universities lined up last Monday night, despite the snow, to have their cheeks swabbed for science.

The New York City Student Ancestry Project, led by City College of New York in partnership with National Geographic and the American Museum of Natural History, conducted cheek swabs to trace the students’ ancient family history through DNA testing.

The testing is part of National Geographic’s Genographic Project, a multiyear global initiative analyzing the world’s largest collection of anthropological DNA samples in order to better understand our genetic roots.

“What we’re in essence attempting to do is explain the patterns of human diversity we see when we look around the world,” said Spencer Wells, PhD, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. “We are an incredibly diverse species, at least on the surface. How do you explain those patterns, the similarities and differences between people?”

The New York City Ancestry Project, headed by Michael Hickerson, PhD, assistant professor of biology at CCNY, began with a grant from the National Science Foundation. The aim of the project is to test the genetic diversity of New York City college students and demonstrate our genetic and ancestral similarities despite our different appearances. Hickerson recruited students from area colleges including Columbia, CCNY, Queens College, and Stony Brook to participate in the study.

““The students will go beyond the NatGeo results and actually learn how to analyze the data on their own,”  said Hickerson.”People are really naturally interested in themselves and their ancestry and how it fits into human history, and there is no better way to engage than to actually participate.”

Students were enthusiastic about learning their genetic history as they waited in line to be tested at the museum. Volunteers had students swab the inside of their cheeks, with the Geno 2.0 tests, available to the public for $199.95, but free for the students participating in the project.

“I want to find out about my ancestry because I know nothing about it,” said Tiffany Black, 22, a student at CCNY. “I want to piece together my history. All I know is that my family is from the south.”

“I have no idea who my ancestors are,” said Chris Clark, 22, a student at Fordham. “I’m pretty sure I’m a mutt.”

Apart from the public testing, gathering DNA information from indigenous peoples is a cornerstone of the Genographic Project. Preserving the culture of indigenous communities is a vital effort for Wells and his team.

“They’re [indigenous peoples] absorbed into a melting pot, their kids stop speaking their original language, and within a generation or two that culture is literally on the verge of extinction,” said Wells. “We are going through a period of cultural mass extinction that parallels the biodiversity crisis.”

However, in designing the project, Wells did not want to just focus on indigenous communities. Events like Monday’s testing are a way to invite the general public to learn about their ancient past.

“When we were designing the project, I didn’t want it to just be the story of the world’s indigenous people,” said Wells. “It’s the story of all of us.”

Every student who participated in the project will be invited back to the museum on April 23rd to hear a summary of the results of the DNA testing.

“It’s just a really cool way to find out about my past,” said Pawneet Kaur, 21, a student at CCNY. “I’m Indian, but India was invaded in the past, so there could be mixing. I could find out I have ancestors that really surprise me.”

Wells reiterated the importance of learning not just about our genetic makeup, but our cultural heritages as well.

“If you think about it, we don’t have that much going for ourselves biologically,” said Wells. “We can’t run as fast as a cheetah. We can’t fly like a bird. We don’t have warm fur. But we’ve developed cultural means to do all those things.”

“Culture is what really defines us as a species,” he added.