Spencer Wells is a leading population geneticist and director of the Genographic Project from National Geographic and IBM. His fascination with the past has led the scientist, author, and documentary filmmaker to the farthest reaches of the globe in search of human populations who hold the history of humankind in their DNA. By studying humankind's family tree he hopes to close the gaps in our knowledge of human migration.
Wells's own journey of discovery began as a child whose zeal for history and biology led him to the University of Texas, where he enrolled at age 16, majored in biology, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa three years later. He then pursued his Ph.D. at Harvard University under the tutelage of distinguished evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin.
His landmark research findings led to advances in the understanding of the male Y chromosome and its ability to trace ancestral human migration. Wells then returned to academia where, at Oxford University, he served as director of the Population Genetics Research Group of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford.
Following a stint as head of research for a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, Wells made the decision in 2001 to focus on communicating scientific discovery through books and documentary films. From that was born The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, an award-winning book and documentary that aired on PBS in the U.S. and National Geographic Channel internationally. Written and presented by Wells, the film chronicled his globe-circling, DNA-gathering expeditions in 2001-02 and laid the groundwork for the Genographic Project.
Question: How can people access the Genographic Project’s findings?
Spencer Wells: Yeah so how are we telling the story, we have a website, that’s the primary portal of communication for so many people and entities these days. Nationalgeographic.com/genograhpic, you can go onto the website, find out what it is we’re doing, what the project is all about, you can decide to participate, you can order a kit, swab your own cheek, see how you fit into this growing family tree, become part of this massive database. But that’s primary means of communication, then of course, you know, one of the real benefits of working at National Geographic is we have all these media outlets, so we have the National Geographic channel and we’re making documentaries and we have the magazine and we can tell stories through the magazine and, you know, we have dot.com which has a news site so we can, you know, publicize the new scientific findings and then of course there’s the general media and then, you know, the scientific results clearly are published in the peer reviewed scientific literature. But yeah I mean it’s using the media as a means of communication to educate people, so it’s not an ivory tower project at all, it’s a very much a project in the public domain that’s meant to educate people as well as make discoveries.
Recorded on: Mar 22 2008