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Reading the Genetic Map: Biology Major Studies Her DNA to Uncover Clues to Ancestral Migration

Honors Alumni Spotlight

Reading the Genetic Map:
Biology Major Studies Her DNA to Uncover Clues to Ancestral Migration

Natalie Negron (class of 2015) was curious about her family ancestry when she enrolled in Genetics and Genealogy, an Honors seminar offered at NSU.

So she began tracing her ancestral migration using genetic testing and genealogical records to help uncover details and information about her personal ancestry.

The results revealed that her mitochondrial DNA is linked to a human subpopulation with a relatively recent migration from Africa––a fact previously unknown to Negron, whose family is Puerto Rican.

“I had hypothesized that I would get results showing that I had European-Spanish origins for both my maternal and paternal lineages,” said Negron, a senior biology major with a minor in history who is a member of both NSU's Undergraduate Honors Program and NSU’s Dual Admission Program for osteopathic medicine. “I was really surprised when I got the results.”

To explore the broader implications of this discovery, Negron has begun to expand her research into a cross-disciplinary Honors thesis titled “Investigating African Ancestry in Puerto Rican Individuals via Testing of Mitochondrial and Autosomal DNA to Generate a Personal Phylogenetic Family Tree.”

Using scientific and anthropological methodologies, Negron hopes to gain a better understanding of her own ancestral history––leaving a clear map for her descendants––as well as create an outline for others who wish to pursue similar searches and contribute to the broader studies of human migration dating back thousands of years.

As part of the Honors class, Negron conducted the genetic testing component of her research through The Genographic Project, a long-term research initiative and genetic anthropology study led by National Geographic. Begun in 2005, the project is designed to map historical human migration patterns by collecting and analyzing DNA samples from hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.

“Researching ancestral lineages on a broader scale for large populations is very beneficial to both society and science,” Negron said. “However, it is uniquely special when personal studies are conducted to trace paternal and maternal lineages as far back as possible…So far, I’ve been able to trace my maternal line 60,000 years back.”

In addition to genetic testing, Negron is assembling a family tree by conducting interviews with relatives and gleaning information from genealogical records.

“I’m considering different historical events and movements that may have influenced the genetic makeup of the population of Puerto Rico (for instance, slavery),” she said. “I’m looking at literature documenting social and geographic data. By looking at social and economic factors, I’m hoping I’ll be able to get a clearer picture of how the structure of the genetic population came to be the way it is today.

“I want to create a very detailed understanding of both sides of my ancestry. Knowledge acquired from the genealogical and ancestral records will serve as a foundation for my biologically and historically-based personal family narrative and family tree. This narrative will tell the individual stories of my ancestors and how all their paths have crossed until the present day.

“Not only will this study help me create a better idea of my family’s past, it will also be beneficial for my descendants and their understanding of their own origins.”

Negron is gaining a multidisciplinary perspective by working with faculty advisors from different academic disciplines. Emily Schmitt, Ph.D., professor and (past) associate director of NSU's fomer Division of Math, Science, and Technology; and James Doan, Ph.D., professor in the formerly named Division of Humanities, co-teach the Genetics and Genealogy Honors seminar.

Under their mentorship, “I am exposed to two different ways of looking at the data––one from a more scientific view and the other from a humanities-based view,” Negron said. “Both Dr. Schmitt and Dr. Doan keep my view of the research a little broader so I can see the total picture.”

“Through her thesis project, Natalie is utilizing cutting-edge research tools to learn more about the genetic identities of her ancestors than has ever been possible before,” Schmitt said. “She is able to study thousands of genetic markers simultaneously to help uncover her near-to-deep ancestral roots.

“I enjoy thinking of her as my ‘grandstudent’ since her high school biology teacher, Aimee Rivera Azua [B.S. in Biology, 2007], also was a student of mine at the college. We are both very proud of her.”

“Natalie is successfully combining scientific and humanistic approaches and methodologies. She combined the genetic/genealogical research on her Puerto Rican family background with questions about her own racial and ethnic identity,” Doan said.

“Prior to this study, my understanding of my ancestral background was limited to the notion that the vast majority of my family originated in Puerto Rico. None of my currently living family members suspected such a relatively recent African link,” said Negron, who presented her initial findings at the National Biological Honor Society (TriBeta) National Convention in Erie, Pennsylvania, in June 2014.

“It was always thought that our family had originated from Spain, as do many Puerto Rican individuals…and as our paternal genetic testing also supports.”

Negron hopes that others will be encouraged by the modern simplicity and availability of genetic testing to trace their own ancestries.

“Anyone wishing to pursue similar personal genetic interests and record their ancestral lineages can utilize the methods and results of my research as an outline for how to conduct their own studies. The ability to document ancestry has never been greater and more economical,” she said.

“The amount of information you can learn about yourself and your ancestry through simple genetic tests—with just a few cheek swabs, you can uncover so much.”

Negron presented a final report of her research at NSU’s 2015 Undergraduate Student Symposium.

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