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Spencer Wells        

Geneticist, Anthropologist and Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic Society

Spencer Wells is a leading population geneticist and director of the Genographic Project from National Geographic. His fascination with the past has led the scientist, author, and documentary filmmaker to the farthest reaches of the globe in search of human populations who hold the history of humankind in their DNA. By studying humankind's family tree he hopes to close the gaps in our knowledge of human migration.

A National Geographic explorer-in-residence, Wells is spearheading the Genographic Project, calling it "a dream come true." His hope is that the project, which builds on Wells's earlier work (featured in his book and television program, The Journey of Man) and is being conducted in collaboration with other scientists around the world, will capture an invaluable genetic snapshot of humanity before modern-day influences erase it forever.

Wells's own journey of discovery began as a child whose zeal for history and biology led him to the University of Texas, where he enrolled at age 16, majored in biology, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa three years later. He then pursued his Ph.D. at Harvard University under the tutelage of distinguished evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin. Beginning in 1994, Wells conducted postdoctoral training at Stanford University's School of Medicine with famed geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza, considered the "father of anthropological genetics." It was there that Wells became committed to studying genetic diversity in indigenous populations and unraveling age-old mysteries about early human migration.

Wells's field studies began in earnest in 1996 with his survey of Central Asia. In 1998 Wells and his colleagues expanded their study to include some 25,000 miles of Asia and the former Soviet republics. His landmark research findings led to advances in the understanding of the male Y chromosome and its ability to trace ancestral human migration. Wells then returned to academia where, at Oxford University, he served as director of the Population Genetics Research Group of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford.

Following a stint as head of research for a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, Wells made the decision in 2001 to focus on communicating scientific discovery through books and documentary films. From that was born The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, an award-winning book and documentary that aired on PBS in the U.S. and National Geographic Channel internationally. Written and presented by Wells, the film chronicled his globe-circling, DNA-gathering expeditions in 2001-02 and laid the groundwork for the Genographic Project.

Since the Genographic Project began, Wells's work has taken him to over three dozen countries, including Chad, Tajikistan, Morocco, Papua New Guinea, and French Polynesia, and he recently published his second book, Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project. He lives with his wife, a documentary filmmaker, in Washington, D.C.

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Speech Topics

The Human Journey: A Genetic Odyssey

Join Wells on an epic journey that spans the globe, using DNA to trace the migration routes of our ancient ancestors and revealing the incredible tapestry of human diversity created along the way.

Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization - Terrorism, pandemic disease, and global warming -- what do these have in common?

To find the answer we need to go back ten millennia, to the wheat fields of the Fertile Crescent and the rice paddies of southern China. It was then that our species made a radical shift in its way of life, progressing from a largely hunter-gatherer society to controlling our food supply by domesticating animals and plants. Journey with Dr. Wells on a 10,000-year tour of human history as he charts the rise to power of Homo agriculturis and the effects this radical shift in lifestyle has had on our species, and speculates on where we might be headed in the future.

Innovation: An Evolutionary Imperative

It has been said that the only certainty is change. Today this seems to be truer than ever, as we deal with economic and ecological upheaval our ancestors never could have imagined. Or could they? Creator and director of National Geographic and IBM's Genographic Project and author of three popular books on humanity's ancient past, Wells takes a much broader view. From the evolutionary origins of human innovation to our modern preference for technologies that appeal to hunter-gatherer minds, Wells provides lessons that resonate in today's rapidly changing world.


Geneticist Spencer Wells tells Springfield Forum audience interest in ...

Wells answered questions from students in the scholars program organized by Wilbraham & Monson Academy.

Spencer Wells on George’s Deep Ancestry

On the show tonight: As Director of the Genographic Project, population geneticist Spencer Wells is in the process of charting new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species. His team has collected DNA samples from half a million people around the world - including George's! In this clip, Spencer shares some rather surprising test results with our unknowing (and admittedly nervous) host....

A Q&A about Our DNA with Geneticist Spencer Wells

We recently spoke with one of the panelists, Dr. Spencer Wells, a population geneticist who as a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence is leading the Genographic Project, a not-for-profit, multi-year, global research initiative that works to uncover our collective past by advanced analyses of DNA.

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