Dragged into the past by science

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Swabbing my cheek for The Genographic Project. My DNA is set to hit the mail Tuesday. Results in six to eight weeks.

WHY are we so obsessed with the past?

For instance, after using a social networking tool such as Facebook, I was contacted by classmates from my alma mater, East Meadow High School in New York, (Class of 1976 — Go Jets!) and Nassau College in Garden City, New York, where I earned my Associate of Science degree in biology.

I’m not one to look back. Just a glance at my high school yearbook picture frightens me. Reading e-mails from acquaintances I last spoke to on the playground of elementary school some 40 years ago has been both intriguing and disturbing. Hearing that a girl I had a crush on in sixth grade has been going through a rough, rough divorce and a paralyzing accident made me feel sad and also, ambivalent. It may sound cold, but I wanted to remember her as that happy-go-lucky girl with whom I shared some mischievous moments in grade school. Not as an adult with problems. I want my childhood memories to stay that way — as memories of coming of age — not today’s realities.

At the same time, it was flattering to hear from Glen, a classmate from elementary school through high school, who is now the CEO of a healthcare advocacy group in Albany, write about the honorable profession of journalism I find myself in. Thanks, Glen, I think.
So when my wife, Karen, asked me to participate in an experiment to trace my ancestors through my DNA, I didn’t immediately latch on to the idea. I have enough trouble getting along with my current relatives. Now I’m digging up ones from the past?

But being a man who appreciates science (I was going to be a plant biologist), I said yeah, why not.

Spencer Wells, who spoke at the Distinguished Speaker Series at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Jan. 13, is the leading scientist behind the Genographic Project. Wells, along with National Geographic Society, IBM and the Waitt Family Foundation, are using DNA samples of ordinary people to trace the pattern of migration on the Earth. In short, our DNA tell a fascinating story of human history — better than any Facebook status or Twitter tweet.

So far, Wells has discovered that “the common ancestor of every man alive was an African who lived around 60,000 years ago.” Genetic data say people started leaving Africa about 100,000 years ago for India, Southeast Asia and Australia (hence, the connection with the indigenous aboriginal people to Africa). From there, they traveled to Europe, then to Siberia and the Arctic and from there, to the Americas.

Wells said in our modern cities and suburbs, we live among people of different backgrounds. But we are separated from our relatives who can pass down stories from generation to generation. His genetic mapping project in a way takes the place of storytelling and oral histories. And redraws the picture of a forgotten human storyline.
So this weekend, I will swab my cheek, once in the morning and once again in the evening. My samples will be sent off to the project labs with only an assigned bar code. In six or eight weeks, I’ll be shown a report through a web portal using my private log-on (no names are given or used). I’ll update you all then.

But before I send off my DNA in a test tube, I have a decision to make. Do I ask them to trace my X chromosome, called the mitochondrial DNA, passed from mother to child, for a picture of my maternal ancestry? Or my Y chromosome, or Y-DNA, which will trace my paternal family roots. Since I’d like to discuss the findings with my mom, who is still very much alive, I may choose the maternal track. Only men have to make this decision, since women have two X chromosomes (and no Y).

I’ll ask my inner scientist. Or maybe I’ll let my wife decide. Either way, I’m getting excited about finding out the past.

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This entry was posted in environment, land use, Pasadena by Steve Scauzillo. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steve Scauzillo

I love journalism. I've been working in journalism for 32 years. I love communicating and now, that includes writing about environment, transportation and the foothill/Puente Hills communities of Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Walnut and Diamond Bar. I write a couple of columns, one on fridays in Opinion and the other, The Green Way, in the main news section. Send me ideas for stories. Or comments. I was opinion page editor for 12 years so I enjoy a good opinion now and then.

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