High School Biotech Class Challenges Ideas About Race
Katherine Corcoran, San Jose Mercury News, Feb. 15
SAN JOSE-In the stratified world of high school, where cliques often form along racial lines, Carolyn Abbott’s biotechnology students recently made a startling discovery:
More than half of the class at San Jose’s Piedmont Hills High School, made up of students from widely varied racial and ethnic backgrounds, is linked through DNA to a common ancestor, born more than 100,000 years ago in eastern China or Taiwan.
“That’s crazy,” said junior Christina Romero, as she scanned the wide array of facial features, hair colors and skin tones among 17 teenagers who were suddenly related.
“I finally have an excuse to be in the Chinese Club,” said sophomore Beth Gomes, a white student among the consanguineous classmates.
It was a highly technical genetics experiment involving polymerase chain reactions and gel electrophoresis. But it yielded deep revelations that forced the identity-conscious teens to re-evaluate their differences. It prompted students to ponder a perplexing question: Does race exist?
With the recent mapping of the human genome and the intricate picture of humans available on a molecular level, scientists know that traditional notions of race no longer hold up.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing,” said Alan Goodman, president-elect of the American Anthropological Association, who likens the discovery to “what it must have been like to understand that the world isn’t flat. The majority of individuals, if you asked them if race is based on biology, they would say yes.”
Junior Aaron Saini, whose family comes from northern India, was surprised to learn that he has more in common genetically with classmate Christine Gonzalez, who is half Mexican and half European, than with Sefali Patel, whose heritage is also northern Indian.
After the lab experiment, junior Michael Huynh walked outside the classroom and saw a friend, who is Indian, in a different light.
“He was just standing there in the hallway, and I was just looking at him and thinking, ‘Wow. He may look different, but there’s no real separation between us,’“ the 16-year-old said.
For centuries, scientists have studied the physiology, facial features and brain size of various populations to prove genetic differences among so-called “races.” Geneticists who spent years mapping the human genome, however, discovered just the opposite: Modern humans vary by only 0.2 percent of their genetic material, and none of those variations corresponds with definitions of race.
There is still debate over the fact that racial groups respond differently to diseases, as well as medications. Most geneticists attribute human differences to environmental adaptations, not race.
But one need only look around the hallways of any California high school to wonder if some primordial force is at work. Like elsewhere, students segregate at Piedmont Hills, a school that draws from middle-class neighborhoods at the base of San Jose’s eastern foothills.
The campus’ ethnic makeup has changed dramatically in the last decade, from predominantly white to 56 percent Asian, 19 percent Latino, 19 percent white, and 5 percent African-American.
Beth hangs out mostly with white kids, though she doesn’t know why. Calvin Wei, a student of Chinese heritage who discovered he shares a common ancestor with Beth, has mostly Asian friends.
“It’s not that we choose to hang out specifically with Asians; it’s just that we grew up together,” said Juan Palma, who is of Filipino heritage.
Which is precisely why a lab such as the one conducted at Piedmont Hills High is so important, said Katy Korsmeyer, program director for the Santa Clara County Biotechnology Education Partnership, which provides support and training for teachers conducting such DNA experiments, which are scheduled for 13 county high schools this year. Science educators estimate that as many as 50,000 students do the experiment nationwide.
“We are 99 percent the same,” Korsmeyer said. “That’s what we want students to understand.”
Abbott’s students tested for a specific genetic marker, called an alu, a random mutation that occurred in one human being, which was then spread worldwide over thousands of years through progeny and migration. The genetic marker doesn’t determine cell functions or human traits. But its presence in populations today allows scientists to determine that it first occurred in eastern China or Taiwan, one reason why there would be a high prevalence of the alu in Abbott’s class, which is more than half Asian.
Through weeks of failed results, do-overs, fire drill interruptions, late assignments and silly comments (one student asked about the impact of aliens on the complexity of the human genome), Abbott never let on that the scientific exercise would have vast social significance.
“I not only teach genetics and techniques, but how to connect these things to their everyday lives,” said Abbott, who has taught 16 years at Piedmont Hills and started the biotechnology class five years ago.
When results were in, 17 related students had a variety of racial and ethnic heritage--African-American, European, Japanese, Indian, Taiwanese, Chinese, Filipino, Mexican, Vietnamese and Korean.
After their initial gasps, students downplayed the results, saying that they already knew, living in such a diverse area as San Jose, that all people are pretty much the same.
“It’s kind of obvious,” said Calvin. “You don’t judge a book by its cover.”
But in the following days, the lab results stayed with them. Sefali, who was stunned that she and Aaron didn’t share the same ancestry, was compelled to talk about the lab with her father, asking him if he thought race existed.
“To him, it doesn’t,” she said. “But he said in reality it does, because the majority of people do think race exists. … That’s just how everyone looks at it.”
Michael remembered the lab results in history class, during a discussion of Rudyard Kipling’s infamous 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden” about Western imperialism. The class was considering the notion put forth at various times in history of a superior race.
“And I said, ‘Race doesn’t exist,’“ Michael said. “I wouldn’t have said anything if I wasn’t in this class.”