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Spelman Leads Pioneering Genetics and Genealogy Program with Students Tracing Ancestry Share a Spelman College Press Release

ATLANTA (Nov. 13, 2015) -- Spelman College will be part of a companion program to Aditi Pai 11-19-15 Photo (crop) the new "Finding Your Roots" curriculum based on Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s acclaimed PBS documentary series of the same name. The college-level component, "Personalized Genetics and Genealogy Exercises to Enhance Introductory Biology Courses," funded with a $304,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will launch in fall 2016. It will be led by Spelman biologist Aditi Pai, Ph.D., and conducted at Spelman in association with Wallace Sharif, Ph.D., assistant biology professor at Morehouse College, and Joseph Graves, Ph.D., associate dean for research at North Carolina A & T State University.

"The project aims to promote science education through an interdisciplinary approach of using genealogy, and for learners to engage in biology concepts through exploring their personal DNA," explained Dr. Pai, associate professor of biology and co-director of the Teaching Resources and Research Center. "Students will be taught the basics of genetics and evolution by exploring their own DNA with a genetic testing kit, and ways to investigate their family history using the genetics and DNA tools of biology as well as the tools of history.”

Dr. Pai was included in a think tank of more than a dozen scholars in different disciplines that began meeting in 2012 at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina, to explore ways to engage disadvantaged and minority middle school students in the sciences.

When Dr. Pai suggested using this approach at the undergraduate level, she was asked to lead the effort and developed a proposal for the National Science Foundation with an undergraduate focus. She began by surveying almost 200 Spelman students about their level of interest, which proved to be encouraging. "I call this project at Spelman PRIDE—Personalized, Real-world, Interdisciplinary, Discovery-based, Evolution education," said Dr. Pai, who is principal investigator on the project. "Historically, people of color have felt alienated in STEM classrooms because the content is Eurocentric. Evolution education faces similar challenges. This curriculum, with its focus on the rich data on ancestry, will alleviate the abovementioned problems."

Through the program, students will be introduced to key concepts in biology and evolution, human variation and health, through hands-on measurement and quantitative analysis and the visual display of their personal information. Dr. Pai will invite noted experts on race, genetics and identity to speak on campus, and include both a two-day workshop and a symposium open to the Atlanta University Center. "The most exciting aspect of this project is that first-year biology majors will be initiated into the discipline through a very personal, interdisciplinary, and relevant exploration of their own DNA," she said. "Whereas we teach students evolution, natural selection, population genetics, migration, etc., with textbook examples – in this new approach their own DNA will be the script they read."

Another new approach includes the use of a mobile app. Lynn Fellman, a multimedia artist and designer of science visualizations and member of the "Finding Your Roots" team, has developed an app through which students can create an artistic version of the students’ DNA profile.

In addition to Pai, six Spelman faculty have also committed to the project: Yonas Tekle, Ph.D., assistant professor, biology; Jennifer Kovacs, Ph.D., assistant professor, biology; Anna Powolny, Ph.D., lecturer, biology; Hong Qin, Ph.D., assistant professor, biology; Shannon Sung, Ph.D., assistant professor, education studies; and Mark Lee, Ph.D., chair of the biology department and associate professor, biology.

The main project, "Finding Your Roots," which received $355,000 in funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is spearheaded and led by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ph.D., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, and Nina Jablonski, the Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. It focuses on developing middle school curriculum through summer camps at Pennsylvania State University, the University of South Carolina and the American Museum of Natural History. Campers will explore their own genomes and heritage. Through videos and direct video links, campers will also be exposed to scientists working in STEM fields who will serve as role models.  

Another long-term goal of the project is to make the entire curriculum – detailed lesson plans, links to content videos and digital templates – free and available to teachers and educational administrators through a special web site. With these resources, schools and communities will be able to set up their own "Finding Your Roots" summer camps and after-school programs.


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