Phillips Middle School students go online for Q&A with researcher

Jan. 12, 2013 @ 03:26 PM

Learn more about the National Geographic’s Genographic Project at

An excited murmur spread through the crowd of children gathered in the media center of Phillips Middle School on Thursday morning – a reaction to the doo-dee-doo tones of an incoming Skype call.
Moments later, teacher Mike Harris greeted famed National Geographic researcher Spencer Wells. For the past three weeks, Harris’ students have used Wells’ research of genetics and anthropology to explore human migration.
On Thursday, about a dozen students in the class got the chance to ask Wells questions during the live interview session.
Using Skype online communication software, Wells could talk face-to-face with children in Chapel Hill from his home hundreds of miles away in Washington, D.C.
Tyerek Holman and Ben Volin, both 12, tag-teamed on their questions as they sat in the soft blue-white glow of the Macintosh monitor.
“What was your favorite part of the journey?” Holman asked, referring to Wells’ book, “The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey.”
“And what would you do differently if you could?” Volin added.
His favorite part, Wells said, was roaming the globe and meeting diverse people from all kinds of cultures.
During his travels, Wells has collected DNA samples for the Genographic Project, which was launched in 2005 to put a “zoom lens” on the shared history of humans on Earth. He recently kicked off a second phase to expand on that research.
“Being able to travel all over the world that quickly and meet all those people in a relatively short period of time was amazing,” he said. “It’s great to travel and spend a lot of time in one place because you get a sense of how they live. But to travel around very quickly, you can make instantaneous comparisons.”
As for what he might do differently? He wouldn’t be so quick to try to replace a culture’s long-held beliefs with scientific answers, Wells said.
“I think we as scientists and we as people who live in a society like the United States, where science is very important and we believe in the tenets of science, find it very easy to believe that that’s the only answer to the world’s issues and big questions like how did we get to where we are today,” he said. “I learned in the course of the work that I do that you have to take into account people’s cultural sensitivities. People have their own stories. We as scientists have to respect those stories because they have been alive for much longer than science has.”
It’s the second year that Harris, with help from school technical expert Michael Byers, has connected students with Wells. He wanted to use the opportunity to find new appreciation for the person behind the content that they’ve been studying.
“It is so easy for them to get lost in the misconception that content is this abstract thing that haunts them through their school day,” Harris said. “They often miss the joy, or essence of simply learning for the sake of learning. I hope they can find an appreciation for the hard work and dedication to learning that it takes to accomplish a task.
“In the end, I want them to see that Dr. Wells is much more like them than they may have realized. He is just a human being with questions, and he is passionate about finding answers. I want them to find something to be passionate about.”

Follow on Twitter at @wplattheraldsun. Connect on Facebook at