Students explore questions about race, genetic diversity and ancestry

December 12, 2016
Dr. Rosalyn Broussard
Students doing AncestryDNA project in class
Student doing AncestryDNA project.

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — What is race? Is there such a thing as a pure race? What is genetic diversity and ancestry? Why are issues involving race, ethnicity and gender of concern?

Thirty students from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville are exploring these and other questions as they conduct research about their ancestry and learn about the biological aspects of race and genetic diversity.

Students are enrolled in the Political Economy of Race, Gender and Ethnicity course, taught by Dr. Rosalyn Broussard, professor of political science and chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at UW-Platteville.

Throughout the semester, students are using social science principles to analyze issues involving people of color, women and ethnic minorities as well as study the causes and effects of the changing composition of families in the United States, examine the nature and extent of discrimination within the U.S. economy, and understand why issues involving race, ethnicity and gender are of concern.

“This course is important because it conveys to students how class, race and sex impact the economic and social conditions of those affected and the economy as a whole,” said Broussard.

As part of the “What is Race?” section of the course, students had the opportunity to discover more about their own ethnic mix and ancestry. In mid-September, students learned about deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the hereditary material in humans and other organisms, then watched a video clip about DNA testing. Following, they received AncestryDNA kits, which contained instructions, collection tubes for saliva, collection tube caps and mailing materials.

After receiving the kits, students activated individual ancestry accounts on AncestryDNA.com then entered activation codes found on the collection tubes to ensure their saliva samples could be linked to them later. Next, the students filled the collection tubes with their saliva then tightly screwed on test tube caps that released a special blue solution to stabilize the DNA in their saliva. Following, students shook the tubes for approximately five seconds then placed them in collection bags. Finally, students placed the collection bags in special mailing boxes that were sent to AncestryDNA in Provo, Utah.

In mid-October, AncestryDNA sent each student an individual report that revealed the results of his or her DNA test, including a percentage breakdown of his or her ethnic mix from 26 ethnic regions. As students reviewed the results of their DNA tests, most found that their ancestry was from Scandinavian countries. Two-thirds of the class had Irish ancestry, including Broussard. Some students were surprised to learn that their ancestry was from other regions than they had expected.

After students reviewed the results of their DNA tests on pie charts, they participated in more in-depth classroom discussions about race, ethnicity and gender, incorporating what they had learned from the tests.

“The AncestryDNA project helped students understand that race is a social construct,” said Broussard. “There is no such thing as a pure race of human beings. Just as a cat is a cat is a cat, a human is a human is a human. The probability of someone being pure anything is very slim. With the introduction of racial slavery in America, the notion that human beings could be subdivided by the color of skin – it used to be class – developed a little bit at a time. At that time, some people viewed those who had lighter skin as more human and those who had darker skin as less human. In order for many Christians to justify slavery and continue to embrace the tenants of Christianity, they had to dehumanize those with darker skin. One major lesson students have learned from this project is that in America, all of us are mixtures of different ethnicities and races.”

Through the research project, Broussard hopes students will become more interested in exploring where they are from and then encourage their parents and grandparents to become involved in the discussion of their ancestry.

A number of students commented on their participation in the AncestryDNA project.

“Discussing race, ethnicity, and politics either in class or the outside world suddenly has a whole new context when a person truly knows their origin. This is especially true when a person is of a diverse or different background than they had thought they were their entire lives."

                  –Spencer Wingert
                  Senior criminal justice major

“I think the benefits of the project were pretty clear,” said Spencer Wingert, a senior criminal justice major from Mukwonago, Wisconsin. “Discussing race, ethnicity, and politics either in class or the outside world suddenly has a whole new context when a person truly knows their origin. This is especially true when a person is of a diverse or different background than they had thought they were their entire lives.”

“This project has been my favorite one throughout my entire college experience,” said Leonard Ballosh, a senior political science and international studies major. “I loved the fact it gave me a chance to sit down and really see where my family descends from. It’s a lot of work to do, however we are determined to finish it before Christmas so we can give copies of it out to my family. I have learned a lot about my family and how everything we have been told is not always true when it comes to stories or what our heritage actually is.” Ballosh is planning on giving his grandparents an AncestryDNA kit for Christmas.

“I looked forward to the results because I’ve always been curious as to what my ancestry was like,” said Alex Roberts, a senior software engineering student from McFarland, Wisconsin. “Before the test, I expected to be nearly half German from my mom’s side, and a mix of a lot of different European regions from my dad’s. The results of the test were more or less what I expected. I turned out to be 43 percent German, most likely from my mom’s side, as we have some records detailing some family history from the late 1800s that confirm it. The remaining 57 percent was up in the air when I took the test. Twenty-six percent turned out to be Scandinavian which, after some digging on ancestry.com and then a genealogy website from that area, I found to be from my dad’s side, as I can trace back nearly 11 generations to the Netherlands in the 1600s. The remaining regions were: 11 percent Ireland, nine percent Great Britain, seven percent East Europe (most likely Ukraine/Poland) and remaining trace regions of two percent Finland/Northwest Russia, one percent South Asia and less than one percent Caucasus (Turkey/Iran/Iraq). Overall, there weren’t any big surprises, but going in, I didn’t really have a strong idea of what half of my ancestry was comprised of, so it was nice to get some solid percentages through this process.”

“I was excited to find out what my ancestry was,” said Adrianna Skemp, a senior biology major from Platteville. “From talking with my family, I believed I was British, Irish, Scottish and German. My results were basically what I thought they were going to be. I am 53 percent Great Britain, 17 percent Europe West, 17 percent Ireland, six percent Scandinavia, five percent Europe East, less than one percent Italy/Greece and less than one percent European Jewish. I had no clue I had trace amounts of Italy/Greece and European Jewish, so that was a surprise.” 

Broussard said that students may use their AncestryDNA results to see if there are any students in the classroom that they have a familial connection to.

For more information about AncestryDNA, go to: www.ancestry.com/.

Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu

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