Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Geneology is one of the most popular hobbies in the U.S. and something Spencer Wells has been pursuing actively for the past six years.

Although many Americans focus on learning the history of their own family’s lineage, Wells, a renowned geneticist and current explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, has taken a much broader approach.

He has traveled to more than three dozen countries to collect data and conduct research as director of National Geographic’s Genographic Project, an effort to track the migratory history of the human species and answer questions about our genetic diversity through the study of DNA.

On Wednesday, Wells will be in Iowa City to share what he has learned so far in a public speech at 7 p.m. at The Englert Theatre sponsored by the University of Iowa’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Genetics.

“It’s the first global concerted effort to study this,” Wells said. “Everybody is interested in their ancestry and the idea that you can help them see aspects of their history that they didn’t know about is very exciting.”

John Manak, a faculty member of the UI Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Genetics and principal investigator in biology and pediatrics, was instrumental in getting Wells to speak as part of a genetics retreat.

“He is an ideal spokesperson for the study of genetics that can be appreciated by the general public,” Manak said. “A lot of the stuff that we research is hardcore disease-based stuff. It’s pretty sophisticated. What Spencer Wells does is very readily digestible and applicable to everyone on this planet.”

Wells and other members of the Genographic Project have invited members of the public to participate by purchasing DNA testing kits on the National Geographic website and sending them back to the team. So far, they’ve had nearly 440,000 kits completed, he said.

“Everybody wants to get into their roots,” Manak said. “This is sort of taking that extra step forward, stepping into the past and seeing precisely the route that our ancestors took which led us to where we are now.”