Hidden Identity

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Genetic testing provides answers, raises questions.

Geneaology shows like African American Lives and Finding Your Roots have helped drive the rising popularity of direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing. With support from the college, some Davidson students recently used the new technology to learn more about their genetic identities.

The effort had its genesis in early 2017, when members of Delta Sigma Theta, a historically African-American sorority, offered a program they called “Black Is, Black Ain’t.” They wanted to understand in greater depth just what “blackness” is. Some of them invited their professors. As a result of that meeting, Professor of Biology Malcolm Campbell offered to help advance their explorations with the backing of the James G. Martin Genomics Program that he directs.

The results were surprising to many, as they saw in themselves case studies of scientific principles at work: There is no biological foundation for “race.” There is more diversity between any given sample of people from a particular “race” than there is between different “races.” And nobody’s going to be “100 percent anything.”

The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, revealed the vast genetic variation that exists among individuals. Researchers worked out the order (or sequence) of the three billion DNA bases that constitute the human genome—although the genome is about 99 percent the same in all people, it still varies at more than 10 million DNA bases.

Weeks after the tests were sent to the laboratory, the students met as a group with Campbell to discuss, and grapple with, their results.

“This showed me deeper connections than I personally could see,” Taylor Harris ’17 said of his results. “It makes me want to get my parents to do this. It makes me want to travel more…”

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