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Faculty and Students Talk DNA Research at Radcliffe Symposium

By Aafreen Azmi, Contributing Writer

Humans may soon have the ability to write our own evolution, said Janet Rich-Edwards, a School of Public Health professor who organized a one-day science symposium focused on recent advances in understanding ancient and modern DNA and possible application for future research.

“The Past, Present, and Future of DNA,” as the symposium was called, faculty discussed a range of topics, from personal genomics to the applications of modern DNA technology in legal investigations.

“We felt that DNA was particularly good subject matter, because there are people doing cutting edge work in DNA involved in biology, legal matters, anthropology, and much more, ” said Alison F. Franklin ’90, the director of communications at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which hosted the event.

Beth A. Shapiro, an associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a MacArthur Fellow, spoke at length about the challenges of working with ancient DNA and the feasibility of using fossilized remains to clone woolly mammoths.

“I really enjoyed the talks this morning,” said Alison Cloutier, a postdoctoral fellow studying genomics at Harvard. “I think they had a really good level of accessibility to people who aren’t in the field, but it was also really interesting for people who do study DNA.”

Cloutier, along with many other attendees, named Shapiro’s presentation as her favorite.

Attendees at the packed venue included graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Boston University, Tufts, and MIT. Graduate students presented their research to conference attendees and speakers during two poster sessions between panels.

“The cool thing about a cross-disciplinary symposium like this is that you have people here looking at [DNA] from an evolutionary perspective, from a medical perspective, and people that are just interested in learning in general,” said Evelyn J. Jagoda, a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology who presented her work during a poster session. “Everyone learns something.”

The symposium was the first part of the DNA lecture series. The next lecture, “Prospects for a Vaccine and a Cure for HIV,” will feature Dan Barouch, a professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

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