EXCLUSIVE: DNA tests help students realize a bigger connection to world

Amariah Caudle, 13, reads the result of her DNA test at Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy. She had based her predictions about her ancestry on stories told by her family members. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Amariah Caudle, 13, reads the result of her DNA test at Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy. She had based her predictions about her ancestry on stories told by her family members. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

More than 60 years after scientists made crucial discoveries about the structure of DNA, 20 students at Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy gained insight into some of the molecular mysteries that make them who they are.

Last fall, while studying life sciences, the girls swabbed their cheeks and sent samples off to Living DNA, a U.K.-based consumer DNA testing company. The big reveal of the test results this week left a big impression on the seventh graders, who were able to make real-world connections to topics they have been studying all semester long including colorism, bigotry and genotypes.

“I’m proud of them because they were able to maturely look at their results and apply what they learned in science. It’s about bringing learning to life,” said Laura Pena, the STEM program specialist.

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For most of the girls, the DNA test was their first real exploration into their ancestry. Before receiving her results, Anike Akanni-Jenkins, 13, shared with her Nigerian mother that she expected she would share the most DNA with other people from Nigeria.

“She said, you may have a few other things, too,”said Anike, who was surprised to learn that her mother was correct. Her DNA profile stretched across the African continent to Chad, Kenya, Mozambique and Ghana.

Some girls had made predictions about their ancestry based on family stories. Amariah Caudle, 13, had heard about her mulatto great-great-great-grandmother for years.

Sitting with her mom, Amariah stared with her eyes wide and her mouth open at the charts and map showing her results. She was surprised that her European ancestry was only 13 percent. Her mother, Janell Caudle, was surprised it was that high.

“I didn’t think a trace would show up in her,” said Janell Caudle. “This many generations later, this is still showing up in our bloodline. I was shocked by the science of it all.”

Amariah said she learned an important lesson that she would share with her extended family. “I have to tell them the color of your skin can’t determine where you are from,” Amariah said.

The DNA Learn program, created in partnership with Atlanta-based Akesogen Labs, was launched as a school-based anti-racism program that uses DNA science to support learning and attitudinal change. The program has worked with six schools in the U.K. The Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy became DNA Learn’s first school in the U.S. when Pena, while planning for the STEM project-based learning unit, reached out to Elizabeth Wright, curriculum designer for “Finding Your Roots — The Seedlings.” Wright connected the school with Living DNA, which donated the test kits and sent a representative to help students interpret the results.

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DNA has an amazing power to engage people that is unmatched, said Diahan Southard, Living DNA community and education outreach manager. Southard believes the DNA Learn program gives school-age children an understanding of DNA at a critical moment, when they are still young enough to listen, absorb lessons and change their values.

Elianed Guzman, 13, said she knew little about her family except that they were from Mexico. Still new to the country, she described in her native Spanish how surprised she was to learn that she shared genetic DNA with people in China, Japan and Korea.

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Lizbeth Islas, 12, learned about her family’s Central American heritage from her mother, who is Guatemalan. Her mother would tell her stories about her grandparents from El Salvador, she said. She expected to share DNA with 54% of people classified as Native American, but she was surprised to learn that she also shared DNA with people living in Africa and Europe. “It is nice to know we all have similarities,” she said.

As the girls clustered in small groups to examine their results with reactions ranging from confusion to surprise, Southard helped them understand what it all means.

“Does it change how you see yourself?” asked Southard.

“Now I know I have family from everywhere,” said Jahmya Phillips, 13.

“Does it change how you see the girls around the table?” Southard asked.

“We are all sisters,” said Anike Akanni-Jenkins.

“That’s the kind of change we need,” said Southard as the girls hovered nearby begging Pena for a few extra minutes to compare their DNA test results before returning to class.

Pena, who said she hopes to add DNA testing to the ninth grade curriculum in the future, agreed to give the students 10 minutes more. “This is not a lesson they will forget anytime soon,” she said.

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