Yonkers Students Use DNA To Help Trace Family Tree

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Brandon Thomas takes a DNA sample Wednesday at Lincoln High School in Yonkers as part of the course, “Faces of Diversity: Building the ‘I Am’ and the ‘I Am from.” Photo Credit: Matt Bultman

YONKERS, N.Y. – Brandon Thomas isn’t quite sure where his family roots extend to.

But by the end of the school year, the Lincoln High School junior will have a pretty good idea.

Thomas is one of 19 Yonkers students using state-of-the-art genealogy technology and DNA analysis to trace their ancestral roots.

“I’ve always wanted to find out where I came from,” Thomas said. “I hope it’s somewhere cool.”

The innovative project, the first of its kind in the United States, is part of a collaboration between educators at Southern Vermont University and Lincoln High School. 

As part of the semester-long course, “Faces of Diversity: Building the ‘I Am’ and the ‘I Am From,’” Thomas and his classmates will meet after school each Monday.

There, they will use a combination of genealogy, oral history, family stories and DNA analysis to trace their family history back four generations.

At the end of the school year, the students, who are in grades nine through 12, will present their findings to educators at Southern Vermont and have a chance to earn up to four college credits.

Lincoln High School’s program director Dean Saghafi said the philosophy of the course stems from the research of Henry Louis Gates, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of African and African American Research at Harvard University.

The idea, he said, is that by giving students a chance to learn where they came from, it can be a foundation to excel academically.

“It can give you a sense of self,” he said.

On Wednesday, the project kicked-off in a small science room in the lower level of the Yonkers high school. Armed with small, toothbrush-like instruments, students scraped DNA cells from the inside of their cheeks.

They dropped them in test tubes filled with saline that will be shipped off to a lab to be processed. And in four to six weeks, each teen will have a little more insight into their family lineage.

Tenth grader Cashus Saydee said he jumped at the chance to be part of the course because he thought it was important to know where his ancestors came from.

“You have to know where you came from to know where you’re going,” he said.

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