DNA project surprises, enlightens West Chester students

West Chester University's Paige Elliott is among 350 students in professor Anita Foeman's DNA Discussion Project, a course that takes a scientific look at each student's genetic makeup.
West Chester University's Paige Elliott is among 350 students in professor Anita Foeman's DNA Discussion Project, a course that takes a scientific look at each student's genetic makeup. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 14, 2013

Before he walked into an honors communications course at West Chester University, Grant Hubbard's ethnic identity was the stuff of skin color and oral history.

He was the white guy with European roots whose family came to the United States shortly after the Mayflower arrived.

Then science took over.

The swipe of a cotton swab inside his cheek and a DNA test indicated that he had ancestors from Europe, and elsewhere.

"My results came back 60 percent Southeast Asian," said Hubbard, 20, of Downingtown. "That's quite a bit different from what my family had always thought we were."

Hubbard is among 350 students who have participated in professor Anita Foeman's DNA Discussion Project, a course at the Chester County school that takes a scientific look at each student's genetic makeup.

The class is an effort to look at diversity in a way that shows connections instead of differences. Students set up websites and write papers about the results.

"It's much harder to totally write somebody off when you realize that 'I have some of that in me as well,' " Foeman said.

The results often shock students, prompting them to reexamine their identities, question their relatives, and start researching family history.

One student discovered that his grandmother was a prostitute who didn't know who fathered her children, Foeman said. Hubbard filled out a recent survey that asked for ethnicity, and he checked Asian for the first time.

The class also has reinforced lessons in other disciplines such as history, anthropology, and archaeology. For instance, a person's genetic makeup may partially be explained by the long-ago conquering of a nation by invading forces and the blending of the races that resulted.

Brooke Hillman, 20, of Warrington, has always thought she was 100 percent European, mostly Italian. Then, she received her results.

"It came back 76.6 percent Hispanic," said Hillman, a sophomore.

"I thought, 'Oh my God!' " Hillman said. "I immediately texted my family and said, 'I'm Hispanic. Who went to Mexico and didn't tell me?' "

One grandmother held fast to her Naples roots. She said, maybe its your grandfather. He is from Sicily.

Hillman did a little research. In the 16th century, the southern part of Italy was conquered by Ferdinand of Aragon, a region that was a part of present-day Spain.

"It's kind of cool to find out that you're something that you didn't know you were before," Hillman said.

In class, students chatted about the results via Skype with representatives of the DNA Reference Lab in Texas, which conducted the tests. The results are based on a statistical analysis of genetic markers and their frequency across populations, said Ali Salih, lab president.

Salih and Foeman cautioned that the results constituted only part of the picture. Additional research using different markers may yield more information in what is a relatively new field of study.

Student Paige Elliott, 20, was confused by results that resurrected old wounds. Elliott, a junior, identifies as biracial. Her mother is white. Her dad is black.

When her test results came back as 89 percent African, she was surprised.

"Should I identify as black now?" she said. "Growing up biracial, you're always in the middle - what side do you fit in on?"

As a youngster in a predominantly white Christian school, Elliott, who is fair-skinned, told people she was white. It wasn't until she was in public school with a more diverse student body that she felt comfortable saying she was biracial.

"I'm interested to know more and dig deeper and see what else I can find out," Elliott said.

For Dena Chasten-Ellis, the test helped uncover a background that had long been a mystery. Chasten-Ellis, who is brown-skinned with kinky hair, was adopted.

"People would ask me, 'Do you have Indian in your family, Caribbean, Dominican, Brazilian?' and I would go, 'I don't know,' " said Chasten-Ellis, 29.

Her test results showed 75 percent African ancestry, much of it with Moroccan, Tunisian, and Egyptian indicators. About 25 percent came from the Iberian Peninsula which includes Spain and Portugal.

That may explain one important thing about Chasten-Ellis: her rare blood type, Rh negative. She discovered that it was found most frequently in people from the Basque region, which spans Spain and France.

"At first I was shocked," Chasten-Ellis said of the results. "But it's still a work in progress. It answers some questions and opens the doors about others."


Contact Kristin E. Holmes

at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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