My true story as a Genome Explorer
My true story as a Genome Explorer is at the heart of the “We Want Our Genome Story” digital book. It’s the culmination of more than two decades of study and research, drawing and writing, about genomics and human evolution. And real-life experiences talking to scientists, attending conferences, and participating in scientific research.
My favorite bits are in the last chapter, “Discover More,” where you can dig into genomics, and I convince you to be a genome-literate champion for science.
I’m not a scientist, but I’ve been an active participant in the Genomics Revolution since 2005. That’s when one of the first consumer DNA testing companies sequenced my mitochondrial DNA. My female ancestry placed me in Haplogroup H — a large, North-Western European group.
No surprise, for my Swedish-German heritage is known family history, but I was elated. The written report included a graphical display of my haplogroup as a path on the world map. It traced my lineage back through time, across continents to our African homeland and the common female ancestor.
But we need color and whimsy, beauty and wonder, to appreciate the expanse of genomic science. It’s why my avatar, Artist, tells the story of my journey.
She tells the story from an artist’s point of view; the beauty in our biology, making connections between art and science, discovering our fierce and fantastic genomes with wonder and delight.
The story begins in my studio. When Artist flies out of her (my) studio, she lands at the intersection of two paths — a crossroad. One leads to the beauty and wonder of genomic science, and the other to fierce mutations and cells gone wild.
Artist expresses my genuine fascination with genomic science when she travels as a Genome Explorer. Then as a frightened and first-time patient, it’s me on the Storm Chaser path.
It was the map that caught my breath. A visualization of prehistory from deep time to the current era had an aesthetic of haunting beauty. And delight, for the map, visualized the ancient, human-wide story and placed me, with my modern DNA, as a participant in the historical adventure.
Who wouldn’t want to be part of scientific discovery? It’s a story everyone should know; how we’re all connected yet individually unique. Like fantastic characters in the long, deep history of evolution. Stories embedded in our genomes that we share with all humans. I wanted to evoke the awe and sense of wonder I was feeling. How could I communicate the experience?
On the Genome Explorer path, Artist tells the emerging stories, such as discovering the expanse of human genetic variation in the data from sequencing whole-genomes. Evolving tales that will delight, perhaps inspire. Like quirky tales of jumping genes and genes that endow some humans with real superpowers. Haunting stories of distant ancestors who gifted us their variants for robust immune systems as they passed into extinction.
On the Storm Chaser path, Artist meets the Nay-sayers — science deniers, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy makers. When she encounters mutations gone wild and dangerous — that’s where the story gets personal. My doctor found a tumor, and it was cancer. What a shock! I had surgery, chemo infusions, got healthy, and then added my experience to Artist’s journey.
I dove into drawing and writing — looking for an artistic way to visualize our connections through deep time and across continents. I dug into scientific journals such as Nature and Science for current peer-reviewed papers. Attended scientific conferences at Cold Spring Harbor Lab to hear the latest from principal investigators.
The outcome from stacks of sketches and hours of study was a new body of work; the genetic ancestry DNA portraits. You can see some of the portraits in the Genetic Ancestry Exhibit commissioned by the University of Minnesota.
The portraits were an experiment to inspire and inform. I wondered, could art and story explain other complex scientific concepts? Could they also evoke the sense of wonder and curiosity to know more?
Since then, I’ve experimented with new ways to pair art, story, and genomics. Animations explaining difficult concepts are one approach; podcast conversations with links to images is another. “We Want Our Genome Story” is my latest experiment for the art + story + science = ah ha, we get it!
We’re all Genome Explorers now. We’re the first generation to have our data — early pioneers exploring our individual and human-wide genome stories. As genomic applications integrate into everyday life, understanding our data becomes vital to personal well-being and universal human health.
With our one-of-a-kind genomes, we have valuable information that could save a life — it may be yours. Sharing your data accelerates the development of new therapeutics for all humans, prepares us for future pandemics, and through the climate crisis.
My true story as Genome Explorer is one we all share. It’s a proper hero’s journey from pre-birth to end-of-life, for our genome stories will emerge and grow over our lifetime. It’s why genomic literacy is so critical.
We need to be genome-literate to understand, protect, and share our valuable data. We need to be science-savvy citizens to oppose anti-science agendas, advocate for scientific research, and ensure ethical and fair public policies. After all, as the first-gen to have our Genome Stories, 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, and that’s why I plan to stay in the thick of it.
The image at the top is an illustration from the last chapter in the digital book “We Want Our Genome Story.”