Alondra Nelson

By Hannah Notess
Photos by Garland Cary

The term “early adopter” might bring to mind people waiting in long lines to get their hands on the latest hot tech gadget. But Alondra Nelson wants to challenge that assumption a bit.

Nelson, dean of social science and professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University, discovered some lesser-known groups of early adopters while doing research for her book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome.

During her October 26, 2016, keynote address at Seattle Pacific University’s Day of Common Learning, Nelson recounted how African-American genealogists and genealogical societies, predominantly older citizens, came to be among the first to embrace direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Testing companies such as African Ancestry and 23andMe promise information about a customer’s family heritage.

She interviewed individuals who chose to do genetic ancestry testing over time to find out how they incorporated those findings into their understanding of themselves and the world.

Alondra Nelson
Sociologist Alondra Nelson spoke to SPU students, faculty, staff, and community members in Royal Brougham Pavilion.

“In these longer conversations that were less about the ‘reveal’ moment, and more about their larger experience, I came to see that people were trying to accomplish some very interesting practices,” she said.

Nelson discovered through her research that people came to those tests with far more questions and hopes that a simple test could answer. By following the lives of individuals who took the tests, and asking questions about their experiences after they’d had time to reflect on the meaning of their test results, she traced deep stories about their hopes for reconciliation, healing, reparations, and recovering an identity that had been stolen through the slave trade.

“Some of what folks are trying to accomplish with genetic ancestry are really questions about ethics, and about justice, and about morality that we can try to get closer to with science but that science can’t necessarily answer,” she said.

Watch Nelson’s keynote lecture — and read a conversation with her and SPU Assistant Professor of Biology Max Hunter.

An interdisciplinary social scientist, Nelson writes about the intersections of science, medicine, and inequality. In addition to The Social Life of DNA, her books also include the award-winning Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination and, as co-editor, Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History, and Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. Chair-elect of the Science, Knowledge and Technology Section of the American Sociological Association, she has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, The Boston Globe, and National Public Radio.

Alondra Nelson

Nelson spoke in SPU’s Royal Brougham Pavilion as part of the 15th annual Day of Common Learning, a campuswide event during which students, faculty, staff, and members of the community gather to learn about and discuss a theme across disciplines.

This year’s theme, “Tracing our roots, telling our stories,” highlighted SPU’s 125th Anniversary celebration and looked at the significance of storytelling and history. Faculty, staff, and students led afternoon seminars covering topics such as personal storytelling, the immigrant experience, the history of education, and more. The event is organized and hosted each year by SPU’s Center for Scholarship and Faculty Development.