Spark for my Art
The science sparking my art.

Once upon a time, no code, just bones. For more than 150 years, paleo-anthropologists examined ancient remains to decipher the puzzle of human evolution. Human fossils are rare; scattered across continents in small fragments, scientists feared there would never be enough to assemble an accurate history of our species.

Rise of a new era. Then, in 1977, genetic sequencing technology added pieces to the puzzle. Invented by British biochemist Fred Sanger, the tech “reads” the A, T, C, and Gs on our chromosomes and mitochondria. Geneticists began to build a library of human genetic variation—an audacious experiment that became the Human Genome Project (HGP), thus kicking off the Era of Genomics.

Bones and genes get together. While HGP research focused on basic science and biomedical questions, anthropologists wondered if ancient DNA could answer questions that fossil bones could not—how did we evolve; where do we come from?

A 1987 scientific paper proved that it could: “Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and human evolution” was the first to analyze patterns in DNA to understand our early evolutionary history. Considered a classic, Stoneking, Caan, and Wilson wrote a short, easy-to-read paper; check it out.

Mark Stoneking and colleagues compared mtDNA from people living in different parts of the world. They concluded that all humans had a common ancestor in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Their work and research by other scientists launched the field of molecular anthropology.

Next step: genomics + paleo-anthropology. What if DNA in old bones could be retrieved, sequenced, and compared to people living today? What stories they could tell! That’s what evolutionary geneticist Svante Paabo accomplished by developing methods to extract ancient Y chromosome and mtDNA from paleontological remains.

Analyzing ancient DNA and modern genomes is how science is now done in molecular paleo-anthropology. The mighty combo of genes and old bones continues to build a deeper understanding of our species.

Hello, DTC testing. I was mesmerized by the unfolding discoveries and wondered if someday, somehow, I could be part of it. That’s why a curious venture, The Genographic Project, caught my attention. It was a unique collaboration between science and commerce—one of the first to offer direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic ancestry testing.

Catching the spark. In addition to sequencing populations for scientific research, the project offered DNA kits to individuals. My data would add knowledge about our species and give me a report on my own “deep” ancestry.

It was the summer of 2005, and I ordered a Genographic DNA kit immediately. Weeks later, my results arrived. The written report describing my Northern European heritage was no surprise, for it synched with my family history. The graphic description, on the other hand, was simply astonishing.

Powerful story. A world map showed lines out of Africa, looping through the Levant, and a few turning northward through Europe. One line ended close to the British Isles and was labeled “haplogroup H.”

The lines depicted my maternal lineage via “markers” in my DNA. The markers are unique mutations in my mitochondrial DNA passed from mother to daughter through distant times. It is an ancient female story about women I would never know, yet connected by shared genetic variants I carry today.

Powerful visual. This picture of shared genetic ancestry was something we had never seen before. It was powerful new information that was personal yet human-wide. In less than a thousand words, it showed us all connected. How could I communicate my feelings of wonder and awe?

Visualizing genetic ancestry. I dove into drawing and writing about genetic ancestry, weaving what I learned into my creative process. I wanted to show and tell our genome stories. The outcome of hundreds of sketches and many hours of research was a series of DNA portraits.

As I developed the look and feel of the portraits, the work grew into a series that included a person’s face. I received requests for individual portraits and, eventually, a special commission from the University of Minnesota for a group of portraits that became the Genetic Ancestry Exhibit the University of Minnesota commissioned.

More than a picture. Artwork with a human face naturally captivates us, yet the portraits needed more. I wanted to tell more of the science behind the images and the data on the map, so each portrait has a companion storyboard.

It was an experiment to inspire and inform. Could art and story, together, communicate complex scientific concepts in a more engaging way? Would the pairing elicit the same wonder I felt when learning about my genome story?

The reaction of viewers at the exhibit was cool. I watched as they studied a portrait. Read the storyboard alongside it and look again at the artwork. Animated conversations grew all around. I even overheard someone say, “Ah-ha, I get it!”

Since then, I’ve experimented with new ways to pair art and story to explain the science of the genome. Animations that explained complex concepts were one approach; Ted-style talks with illustrated images were another. My latest project is an illustrated book, “Decoding Plant Genomes,” about using genome engineering to protect our food supply.

The Genomics Era. Years ago, when diving into the thick of it, I couldn’t imagine I would morph into a genome explorer and fierce advocate for science. And how genomic enterprises worldwide would permeate everyday life. 

What began three decades ago as an audacious project to sequence the human genome laid the foundation for gene therapies for precision medicine and rescued millions of us with the mRNA vaccines.

We’re all Genome Explorers. As genomic applications become commonplace, understanding our data becomes vital to our individual and human-wide health. We must be genome-literate to guide ethical applications and demand sensible public policies. Future generations are counting on us to get it right.

It’s why, some years ago, I went on a mission to show the beauty and value of our magnificent genomes. We’re all Genome Explorers now, so I plan to stay in the thick of it.