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Alumnus Spencer Wells Wants to Know Where We All Come From

Alumnus Spencer Wells Wants to Know Where We All Come From

Meet Spencer Wells (B.S., '88), National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and founder of the Genographic Project.

wells-machu-picchu700.jpgWere you into science even as a kid?

Like all kids, I was interested in science. And I was fascinated by history. When the King Tut exhibit came to New Orleans in 1978, I stood outside in the rain for eight hours to get a ticket. It was like a time machine: I was transported back. If Indiana Jones had existed at that time (this was pre-Raiders of the Lost Ark), that's who I would have wanted to be.

My mom went back to college when I was 11 or 12 to get a Ph.D. doing research on nutrition and cancer and I could see that science was about solving puzzles. You could be the first person in the history of humanity to know how something works. That's the thrill of science.

You came to UT Austin for your undergraduate degree. What are some of the experiences you had here that most influenced you?

I took Mark Kirkpatrick's evolutionary biology course. It was amazing. He taught me that you can use math and science as an objective means to understand something about the history of life on earth—how things evolve, why they change. He got me excited about that and encouraged me to go to Harvard to work with Richard Lewontin, the "grand old man" in population genetics.

Another person who had a big influence was Malcolm Brown who taught cell biology. I learned that science isn't just about research, but what you tell people about research. You can do all these amazing things, but if you never come back and tell people, there's no point in doing it. We were doing 25 to 30 page lab reports every week, typed, without computers, and with pictures. We had to be able to tell a story about a complicated piece of science.

In 2002, you wrote a book tracing human migrations over the last 50,000 years, called The Journey of Man, and then went on to produce a PBS documentary of the same name. What did you learn from that experience?

It was a huge learning experience. Scientists and storytellers approach things differently. Storytellers sift through all the facts, weigh the information and decide how they want to tell the story. There has to be a voice that comes through. Scientists, on the other hand, are worried about references and laying out every single detail and alternative explanations. I had to move from that mindset to say well, as someone who has been in this field for 15 years, looking at the data, this is my interpretation of how things actually happened.

Was that shift hard?

This is always a tough line to walk in what I do. There are a handful of others who do this, walk the line between those who are communicating and those who are just doing basic research. There will be people on both sides who throw stones at you. I think that's partly why not so many people study science. People aren't going out talking about how exciting it can be. Instead, they say, memorize all this stuff. They don't tell you about the exciting stuff, the cool stories. That's the role I play.

In 2005, you launched the Genographic Project, which asks people from around the world to swab their cheeks and send in DNA samples to help you flesh out how humans populated the planet. How did that project start?

It came out of the film project, which was co-produced by National Geographic International and PBS in the states. The folks at National Geographic asked me, if you could do anything, what would it be, which is a cool question. I told them we needed more samples. The film was based on a few thousand people and looked at just a handful of genetic markers. We could expand the number of samples and markers to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. We could explore the dawn of agriculture, the journey of the Polynesians across the Pacific, and on and on. They said that's a big idea, that's cool, let's do it. We teamed up with IBM and the Wait Family Foundation and launched in 2005.

swab-700.jpgHas the project gone pretty much as you expected?

The most surprising thing has been the excitement on the part of the public about getting involved with this. When we put it together, it was a hard sell within National Geographic. There was concern internally about the viability of public-based DNA testing, what has become known as "consumer genetics." Our CEO said, I think the project is awesome, you'll discover interesting things, but no one will ever buy these. We sold 10,000 the first day and we hit 100,000 by end of 2005.

Why do you think people responded so strongly?

People want to find out about themselves. But what they really love is that they're actively working with the scientists. They're boots on the ground, helping scientists understand the history of our species. That kind of opportunity doesn’t happen often. Most adults, if you push them, they're naturally curious. They're born scientists. This allows them to do that. They didn’t train to be scientists; they went off and did other things. It's an opportunity to be a scientist again. That's the most rewarding part of this.

Now that the program is 10 years old, are there still new things to learn?

Always. That's the whole point. We have cool papers coming out all the time. We still have lots of data to mine. People are now sharing their family stories online. So instead of telling you that you have northwestern European origins, maybe we can start to tell you down to a specific village where your ancestors came from. We can dig in and get more of the details from the stories and discover things we didn't expect. In other areas, such as looking at genes preserved in fossils, we now know that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred. All those things drive the science forward.

Has your work in the genetics of human populations over deep time changed your perspective on the history of your family or on your own place within the human community?

Yes. That's the social message behind what we do. If you look at the world the way Linnaeus did in the 18th century, you would think there are lots of human races. We look so different in terms of skin color, eye color, hair color. The stuff you can see on the surface is so different that it seems there must be deep-seated differences in the genetics underlying that. If you took biology in the 1980s, you would have learned about discrete biological races of humanity, that people at that time believed had been evolving separately for a million years.

It turns out that that's all wrong. We all share a recent common ancestor in Africa in the last 200,000 years. All of the diversity we see is a result of migration patterns over the last 60,000 years or about 2,000 human generations. That's a blink of an eye in an evolutionary sense. At the genetic level, we're 99.9 percent the same. We're all part of an extended human family. That person that seems so different from you is actually your cousin. So maybe you should treat him or her a little better.

I understand you are now a co-owner of the legendary Austin blues club, Antone's. How did that come about?

I'm a huge blues fan. I grew up in Lubbock, home of Buddy Holly, Mac Davis and others. I grew up playing guitar and I went to Antone's as a student. I was looking for something to invest in and my brother, who is a musician, told me Antone's was up for sale. I said absolutely. I'm also thrilled to be partnering with [Grammy-winning blues guitarist] Gary Clark. [Ed. note: As of press time, the owners were planning to reopen Antone's at a new venue in downtown Austin in mid-2015.]

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Learn More

Video: Spencer Wells on the Colbert Report (Aug. 14, 2007)
Video: A Family Tree for Humanity (Spencer Wells at TED Global, June 2007)

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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

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