Last fall, Hannah Ericson decided she wanted to learn more about herself and her family.
So, the first-year University of Iowa student, who’s majoring in biology, decided to use a commercial DNA test that would trace her family’s ancestry and offer some insight—albeit coarse—into her genetic identity.
She was surprised by what she found out: The test revealed that she had a more pronounced Iberian identity—along with a splash of Italian heritage—“that my family had no oral history of,” she says.
Now, she’s further exploring the branches of her family tree. “The tests made me appreciate how many factors had to come together to make me who I am,” Ericson says.
Ericson and other UI students are helping the public better understand their ancestry and their DNA. The students, under the supervision of faculty adviser Bryant McAllister, participate in monthly meetings to educate those in the community interested in ordering a DNA test or interpreting results.
“You should know what you’re purchasing,” says McAllister, associate professor in the UI Department of Biology, who formed the Personal Genome Learning Center in the spring of 2016. “It’s good consumer practice to do the research knowing what you want to find out and making sure what you purchase is a good match.”
The next session, on April 25, will coincide with National DNA Day. Organizers have scheduled a host of activities, from one-on-one educational sessions for the public to hosting a guest talk by Charles “Chip” Aquadro, director of the Center for Comparative and Population Genomics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The events will take place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 N. Linn St.
A separate group, led by the Iowa Institute of Human Genetics and UI Health Care, will celebrate National DNA Day by sponsoring a classroom door–decorating contest at area schools. Contestants can tweet their entries to @UIowaSTEM or send them via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Winners will get a visit from a genetic counselor for a genetics-related activity. Genetic counselors also will be on hand at the DNA Day event at the library, and the UI STEM group will sponsor a Snapchat takeover.
Students in the DNA Interest Group are learning about ancestry and genetic profiles through tests they took that were funded by the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust. They discuss the results in weekly meetings led by McAllister, so the students learn how to interpret the data and how to explain the tests to others.
“They should be knowledgeable consumers,” McAllister says.
Mason LaMarche, a sophomore majoring in interdepartmental studies and multidisciplinary studies, was interested more in the basic science, such as “how genes translate into what you see in a person,” he says.
The Milwaukee native says the tests are useful because they can confirm what someone has learned about family history either orally or through independent research.
“It’s a bridge between science and history,” says LaMarche, who’s been with the 30-strong student group since its inception.
The students do not endorse a particular product. That’s especially important, McAllister says, considering there are hundreds of companies advertising personal genetics services.
“It’s a very unregulated market,” he adds.
That’s where the students’ experience taking DNA tests can come in handy.
Adisa Salesevic, a junior majoring in biology, says she learned little about her family history from one company’s product because it concentrated its genealogy mostly in the United States, whereas Salesevic’s ancestry extends mostly to the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. When she took a test with a second firm, she received a more thorough analysis.
“It was much more useful,” she says.