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Researcher: Genetics impacts everyone

BY AUDREY DWYER | FEBRUARY 02, 2012 7:20 AM

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Popular genetics affects everyone.

That's the message of Spencer Wells, the director of the National Geographic Genographic Project, who described to University of Iowa students on Wednesday how genetic research uncovers hidden ties in society.

"It's a story about all of us," he said.

He is leading a global expedition to collect DNA samples from various indigenous human populations. These samples are being used to record history of human migrations that began in Africa and spread throughout the world.

"The average person doesn't think of genetics as being terribly relevant to her or him," he told The Daily Iowan. "I think what this study does is raise awareness about genetics to the average person who is not a genetics scientist."

Wells — who became curious in genetics when he was 10 years old in a biology lab with his mother — said the lecture was an opportunity to bring the excitement of genetics to students in all different areas of study.

He spoke at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., about his research experience in roughly 80 countries.

In Wells' research, scientists are able to study how the Y chromosome, found in most male mammals, traces ancestral lineage.

Dan Eberl, the director of the UI's interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in genetics, said the program helps train students to be independent thinkers.

"This enables us to expose our students to a wide variety of studies; these ideas are really important," he said.

Though the number of students in the program has remained steady over the past few years, averaging roughly 45 students, Eberl said the program has expanded significantly through the numerous interdisciplinary programs.

John Manak, a UI assistant professor of genomics and genetics, said several projects underway in the genetics program examine ways to improve medicine.

Manak stressed the importance of Wells' study in his explanation of human ancestry. The study helps answer the question of human identity and origin simply by looking at DNA.

The UI initially had a basic genetics program, but as developments in the field grew over time, the university expanded opportunities for students. Genetics has become an interdisciplinary field at the university, with officials hiring additional faculty through cluster hiring.

Lily Paemka, a graduate student in genetics, said while she feels genetics is obviously important, giving the community an opportunity to listen to a well-known researcher such as Wells may inspire future generations.

"Hopefully, we will also catch the attention of promising future scientists and maybe even convert some," she said.


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