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: What scientific initiatives would you like to see from the next President?
Spencer Wells: You know, I think we’ve got a lot of scientists working in the United States certainly already, would we like to have more funding, of course, everybody wants more funding for their particular area, you know, if I were in the theater I’d demand more government funding for, you know, theater productions. So yeah more money would be nice but I think that the real role that the President can play in this broader kind of theme of science literacy is in education, using the Presidency as a bully pulpit to get out the message that science is important. It’s not just something that’s done by the scientists for the scientists, it’s done by the scientists who are citizens for everybody else in the country and with the collaboration of everybody else in the country because at least in terms of government supported science it’s paid for by the rest of the country. So, you know, I think scientists have a role to play as well, I think scientists should perhaps make more of an effort to communicate with the public at large about the work they’re doing and the implications and why it’s important, you know, it’s perhaps easier to ask for more money than it is to explain to people who don’t have a scientific background why you need more money. But I think the latter is at least as important and, you know, these days in my opinion part of being a scientist, a responsible scientist.
Recorded on: 5/22/08