New York City college students participate in ancestry project

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A Genographic Project Participant swabs to trace her ancient ancestry. (Credit: Hatnim Lee.

Two hundred New York City undergraduate college students will get a personalized history lesson this semester.

Students from across the city are participating in the New York City Student Ancestry Project, part of National Geographic’s Genographic Project.

Tonight, participating students will gather at the American Museum of Natural History to hear a lecture from Geneticist Spencer Wells. The students will then be guided as they swab their cheeks and submit their DNA in the first step to tracing their ancient family history.

National Geographic’s Genographic Project is “a multi-year global research initiative that uses DNA to map the history of human migration.” More than 600,000 people in more than 130 countries have participated in the initiative.

While genealogy allows people to search records and research their family history as far back as a couple hundred years, DNA can trace a person’s ancestral history over thousands of years, according to the Genographic Project.

Recently, it has become easier and cheaper to access human genomes, the entirety of a person’s hereditary information, said Michael Hickerson, assistant professor of biology at the City College of New York, who is heading the student ancestry project.

“The big motivation here is to give people a better understanding of what this stuff actually is and isn’t and to give people a sense and intuition about the level of uncertainty that comes with ancestral inference through genomics,” Hickerson said.

Participating students represent colleges such as the City College, Queens College, Columbia and Stony Brook. A correlating course is being offered at these schools where the students will learn how to analyze the genomic data.

Students will receive their results in April, and a results symposium will be held at the American Museum of Natural History on April 23.

The student project is funded by an NSF Grant.

Hickerson said another goal of the project is to show how much global diversity can be seen in 200 individuals.

“People in New York City are coming from all over the world. People’s parents are coming form all over the world,” he said. “It’ll be a good experience for the students to see how many branches of human history and humanity are still contained in their genomes.”


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