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 is technology changing the way you work?
Spencer Wells: For the work that we’re doing in Genographic, the challenges are not so much technical as they are for lack of a better term, social or cultural, you know, it’s not really a challenge to get the genetic information once the DNA sample is in the laboratory, you know, that technology has advanced so much in the last decade, really is a spinoff of the human genome project that generating genetic data these days is not that hard. It’s getting the sample in the first place and so that’s why, you know, the Genographic Project, yes it is a genetics project but really the hard part of what we do is going out around the world and making contact with indigenous peoples and sometimes very remote locations, sending teams out, doing outreach, talking to people about the work we do and, you know, convincing them that it’s worthwhile to participate in this project, getting those samples. That is really the challenge, you know, it’s the challenge in what we do but it’s the challenge in all fields of genetics these days. It is, you know, building your cohort if you’re doing a medical genetic study, it’s getting enough people with the disease and without the disease who are matched for age and body mass index and everything else you do in order to find those disease associations. It’s getting those samples that is the real challenge and so, you know, for me I don’t see any massive changes in technology affecting what we do scientifically, it’s really, you know, creating the logistical framework in the project to allow us to get the samples we need to tell this story, that’s the tough thing in the field of research that I’m in.
Recorded on: 5/22/08