By Marwa Benahmed-Ali
When Adjunct Communications Professor Tyler Daniels was a graduate student at West Chester University in 2011, he heard about a DNA research project, which resonated with him.
The DNA Discussion Project, developed by West Chester University Communications Studies Professor Dr. Anita Foeman, encourages participants to discover and understand how DNA and family narratives open doors for exploration about their race and culture.
Daniels said he was always passionate about his family ancestry. In particular, Daniels said he wanted to know as much as he could about his origins because he believed his ancestors were of various origins.
Narratives that have been passed down in the Daniels family stated that they were “plainly white.” When Daniels was 16, he discovered that his family had come from Native American ancestry, specifically the Algonquin Tribe.
His grandmother, whom Daniels calls the “historian of the family,” has traced back his family’s ancestry since the mid 1600s. Daniels discovered that his European ancestors fought in the German Imperial Army in World War I against the Axis Powers.
“The history part of my brain got stimulated and I was looking for every book and every opportunity,” Daniels said. “That’s why I found this project the coolest thing ever. Any opportunity is a good opportunity.”
During Daniels’ orientation night at WCU, he was invited to participate in the DNA Discussion Project whereby he had the opportunity to have his DNA analyzed by 23andMe, a personal genomics and biotechnology company that processed DNA kits at the time.
According to Daniels, participants are given a tube in which they provide a saliva sample. A stabilizing solution is added to preserve the DNA which is then sent to a laboratory to be analyzed.
“The laboratory maps out the genetic structure in conjunction with regionalized concentrations of mutual samples,” Tyler said. “The samples essentially tell you how and where in the world that genetic makeup probably originated.”
Daniels received his results after six weeks and discovered that he was 85 percent European, 8 percent Asian, and 7 percent African.
Daniels, like many other participants of the DNA research project, including DCCC faculty and students, was surprised when he received unexpected results.
Recently, the DNA Discussion Project has partnered with DCCC to help participants understand how their race and culture guide their communicative behaviors and influence their identity.
DCCC Communications Professor Tanya Gardner, who teaches Communication Across Cultures, said she was able to receive generous funding through a grant provided by the Experimental Learning Committee at the College. The grant covered the costs of purchasing and processing the DNA testing kits.
“The committee encourages faculty to use resources and design courses with some component in which students are having a hands-on experience to learn competencies differently,” Gardner said. “I incorporated the DNA project in my curriculum and designed my class to be student centered.”
Gardner and her students had the opportunity to have their DNA analyzed by Ancestry.com, an online genealogy company responsible for processing DNA kits.
A DNA sample was collected via a painless cheek swab. After several weeks, participants were sent an Advanced Ethnic Distribution Certificate sent by Ancestry. com.
“The certificate lists the probable genetic makeup in the form of a pie chart, with specified probabilities of which sub-region their genetic makeup is located,” Gardner said.
Gardner said she was always certain she had Native American ancestry. In fact, family narratives stated that her family came from the Choctaw tribe of the Midwest.
“What I actually found out was that I am African American with European ancestry,” Gardner said. “I am not Native American at all…This project changed my entire life.”
Previously, Gardner was so proud of being Native American that she participated in Redskin protests and joined Native American pride forums online.“Even my mother would go to PowWows and sweat lodges which were a Native American tradition,” Gardner said. “Well now, they’re not my people and it confuses me.”
Alyssa Massarella, 19, a communications arts theatre major, also had her DNA analyzed as a part of the Communications Across Culture Course.
“My whole life I knew I was Italian and nothing else,” Massarella said. “Some traits in me made me believe I could be something else racially.”
Masarella said she heard about the project in her class and wanted a DNA kit to learn more about herself.
“After three weeks, I received my results and discovered that I was 84 percent Italian and Greek, 7 percent Asian, and 1 percent Irish,” Massarella said. “The findings positively impacted me because I could relate to other people. It was eye opening because we’re not that different from each other.”
The DNA Discussion Project was featured in the Boeing STEM Speaker Series Oct. 27 in Room 1403 of the Stem Complex.
Dr. Sidney Kolpas, assistant professor of mathematics and creator of the STEM Speaker Series, introduced panelists including Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Bob Suran, President Dr. Jerry Parker, Foeman, Daniels, and Massarella.
Suran began the lecture by providing an explanation of DNA. “DNA is a collection of valuable cook books that gets passed down from generation to generation,” Suran said. “The cell copies the recipe that it needs.”
According Suran, human cells contain DNA and proteins called genes, which make people different from each other.
Foeman, the second panelist to speak, expanded Suran’s explanation of genes and discussed how DNA kits and family narratives were used to map out participants ancestry.
“We use what we know about the human genome and ask people about their racial narrative,” Foeman said. “We are 99.9 percent the same but that last bit is not racially connected. Groups links and associations are complex, so we are not silos.”
Foeman presented slides of students who participated in the DNA project. Each slide had an image of a participant and a pie chart with her results.
“This provides an image of people who had different results,” Foeman said. “It could’ve happened but it doesn’t resonate.”
Daniels and Massarella had the opportunity to present their results to the audience after Foeman’s discussion. Daniels explained how the project gave him more clarity about himself.
“Knowing where I came from helped me perceive myself differently,” Daniels said. “It profoundly affected me as a teacher because it taught me how to communicate and interact based on a cultural societal form.”
Next, Massarella told the audience about her results as well as how she was not Sicilian. “It’s kind of rare that a pie chart tells you what you are, but it did,” she explained.
Parker said he hoped the project would validate his family narrative and it did.
“What you see is what you get,” Parker said. “I was pretty certain that my family story was intact.”
Parker believed he was Irish and Scottish, according to family narratives. After receiving his results, he said he was mostly Irish, Scottish, and English.
“Basically I’m European with a slice of African,” Parker said. “We all start from Africa somewhere.”
Parker concluded his presentation by sharing pictures and stories of his ancestors. The discussion ended with a 10-minute
question and answer session. Students asked questions regarding biology and how to get their DNA analyzed.
“I thought it was interesting seeing how different races are defined by genes,” said Catherine Diskin, 24, a physician assistant major. “Discoveries also affect how people feel about their family narratives.”
Students and faculty who are interested in getting involved with the project should directly contact Gardner at tgardner6@ dccc.edu. For additional information visit www.dnadicussionproject.com or www. dnaancestry.com