Author explores the intersection of science and race

Alondra Nelson

April 28, 2016 — Advances in DNA sequencing and genetic ancestry testing have led many African Americans to rush for more answers about their heritage that may not be answered by science, Alondra Nelson, Dean of Social Science at Columbia University, told a packed audience of students, faculty, and staff at the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Book Series at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on April 7, 2016 in Kresge G2.

“The full swath of genetic testing gives it [DNA] more social power than ever before,” Nelson said in her talk about her new book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. The book is based on her nearly 15 years of research on how African Americans view genetic ancestry testing and what they do with information that they learn. Learning about their roots has led some African Americans to try to establish ties with kin in their ancestral homeland; to rethink and sometimes change their citizenship; to dig up buried relatives in hopes of finding more answers through DNA testing; and to make legal claims for slavery reparations based on ancestry, she said.

In her introduction, Meredith Rosenthal, professor of health economics and policy and Associate Dean for Diversity, welcomed Nelson to the school to discuss biology, race, and social issues, which she said are among the “front burner issues” in America today.

The lecture was sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of the Dean, and the Harvard Office of the Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity and Equity.

Marge Dwyer