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Deep Ancestry: A source of inspiration by Michael Harris

The second of our Deep Reads blog series follows the PLOS Genetics Deep Reads article, “Strands in the History of Molecular Genetics”, published yesterday. Deep Ancestry: A source of inspiration” was written by Michael Harris, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. His current research is focused on the use of optogenetics in cell signalling. When not in the lab he can be found cooking, trekking and keeping up on his science books.

I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was 8 years old. Being somewhat dyslexic, I used to struggle a lot with reading, but it was always the science books that engaged me: Are We Hardwired: the Role of Genes in Human Behavior (William R. Clark); Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo (Sean B. Carroll); Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Mary Roach); the list goes on. I couldn’t get enough of them! There is, however, one book that stands out above the rest in my mind as driving me toward becoming a geneticist, Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project by Spencer Wells. I was 17 when I read it, and the experience influenced my decision to undertake a degree in Genetics with Japanese Language & Linguistics at the University of Manchester.

In this book, Wells describes how DNA can be used to track patterns of human migration. He explains how, through the use of parsimony, small changes in sequence between distinct groups of peoples can be compared to generate a kind of family tree, and model past migrations and human history.  This book also introduces basic population genetics and molecular biology concepts in an engaging and relevant context (even if some of the claims are now a little outdated).  I can attest to how much reading this book helped me during the first year of my undergraduate degree!

Xunantunich, Belize – taking in the view after completing the field course.
Image credit: Michael Harris

Despite outlining how small mutations in the genome can be used to elucidate when distinct human populations diverged from one another, Wells emphasises that the goal of the Genographic Project is not to highlight the differences between people, but to illustrate that we are all linked together by our ancestry. He des this by telling the stories of five key people that he met during the course of his research, and explaining how the sequencing of their DNA helped provide important evidence for a particular course of human migrations joining us all together.

Researchers from the Genographic team travelled the world collecting DNA samples from indigenous populations at far flung places across the globe. As a nerdy British teenager growing up in Japan and a devoted member of my school’s Biology Club, I could scarcely imagine more exciting research! Travelling the world, interacting with all sorts of amazing cultures, and ultimately helping solve one of mankind’s greatest philosophical musings: where do we come from? I was sold! I wanted so badly to be those researchers, out scouring the globe, piecing together the puzzle of our past. And to an extent I’ve lived this dream.

In 2010, I was selected to work on a field course in conservation genetics in Belize. Not quite human population genetics, but I wasn’t going to turn down this opportunity! And while I was up to my chest in a rainforest pond at two in the morning gathering data, I just had to think to myself with a smile, “Well, this is what you wanted…” To me this is the embodiment of science; it’s about discovery and adventure, and that constant desire for knowledge and understanding, something that I think Deep Ancestry captures beautifully. Wells enthusiastically recounts stories of accomplishments in the Genographic Project and conveys the true spirit of scientific research. This is something that I continue to strive for, whether I’m in the field studying 100-year-old mahogany trees or at the microscope watching fluorescent proteins being tracked through the cytoplasm of a cell. I can’t help but feel a constant sense of awe and wonder at the natural world in everything that I do.

Wells also gives a good account of the multidisciplinary nature of research. It is by collaborating with linguists, climatologists, historians, archeologists and many others that he and his team are able to build a more accurate picture of the patterns of human migration. This is something else that I’ve also tried to incorporate into my scientific career. Though I’ve not lost my passion for genetics, I have now begun a PhD at Cambridge University in Immunology & Infectious Disease; that is, after being a plant scientist, a developmental biologist, a parasitologist, and a pharmacologist. I love genetics and I also love science as a whole, with all of its overlap and interconnectedness.

The Eagle, Cambridge – getting more ‘inspiration’ at the pub made famous by Watson and Crick.
Image credit: Michael Harris

Deep Ancestry by Spencer Wells, though the most influential for me, is just one book among many that has helped shape me into the scientist that I am today. There is no doubt in my mind that reading about great scientists from the past (or present) can help inspire the current generation of researchers. As the Confucian saying goes: “No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”


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