Genetic Testing Reveals Surprises

At Winthrop event, master and tutor learn of their distant roots

Unnamed photo
Alan C. Chiu

At an event yesterday, Winthrop House residents presented the results of genetic testing that traced their ancestry. The House Master and a tutor sent cheek swabs to the Genographic Project.

If you think you know where you come from, think again.

At least that was the message behind an event at Winthrop House last night in which two House residents discussed the results of genetic testing that traced their roots to distant, and in one case unexpected, corners of the globe.

Pedro Jorge Gomes Castelo-Branco, a Winthrop House tutor of Portuguese descent, and House Master Mandana Sassanfar, whose family is from Iran, presented the result of the tests as part of a race and diversity event that focused on the “interconnectedness of the human population.”

The pair had sent cheek swabs to the Genographic Project, a National Geographic effort that aims to map humanity’s genetic journey through history using patterns of known mutations that differ among populations.

The tests traced Castelo-Branco back to Spain, a short hop over the border from his homeland that came as no surprise.

This was not the case for Sassanfar, whose lineage was traced to Northern Europe, an entirely different continent.

“My family on my mother’s side has lived in Iran for the past 2,000 to 3,000 years,” Sassanfar said. “Of all regions, I would never have guessed that I would have come from Northern Europe.”

Sassanfar’s surprise was tinged with disappointment. “Everyone has a pride for where they come from, and I might have been happier if they had said I come from the Middle East,” she said. “But this was thousands of years ago, so who knows.”

According to Irene Lucile Garcia Newton, the House race relations tutor who organized the event, Sassanfar’s results were in line with the purpose of the evening.

“The goal was to trump assumptions that you can tell where someone is from by how they look, when clearly that isn’t true,” Newton said.

“The goal was to educate people about race and genetics, and to get people talking about sensitive issues, which is always difficult,” she added.

Professor Scott V. Edwards and Pardis Sabeti from the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology lent the scientific perspective, explaining the mechanics of this sort of gene mapping as well as the background behind the Genographic Project, which Edwards helps advise.

In addition to analyzing the genetic material of the general public, the organization collects samples from various indigenous groups around the globe in an effort to understand genetic diversity and answer the question of where humans come from.

“The key thing to understand is that the human population is interconnected and there is no one ancestor,” Sabeti said. “We are an amalgamation of different races.”