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Identity in the Age of Ancestral DNA

Open your mind to new concepts of personal identity as you look at the scientific and cultural dimensions of DNA ancestry and what it can reveal about us.
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Who do you think you are? In the 12 fascinating lessons of Identity in the Age of Ancestral DNA, Anita Foeman, PhD, Professor of Communication and Media, and founder and primary investigator of the DNA Discussion Project at West Chester University, takes us behind the scenes to examine what really happens when individuals receive their personal DNA ancestry results. By learning about their individual and family reactions, we learn more about our own identity narratives as well.


Anita Foeman
Anita Foeman

There’s nothing more intriguing than unlocking the mysteries of our history, heritage, and lineage and learning who we are and what we’re made of.


West Chester University

Anita Foeman is a Professor of Communication and Media at West Chester University. She received her PhD in Communication Studies from Temple University.

Anita’s scholarly work explores diversity in different facets of society, and she has 30 years of experience in diversity and leadership consulting for educational, government, and private agencies. Her research examines identity based on new ancestry DNA data, with findings and advice gathered in a book cowritten with Bessie Lee Lawton titled Who Am I? Identity in the Age of Consumer DNA Testing. She has also been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Here & Now on NPR, BBC Newshour, National Geographic magazine, National Geographic Explorer, and NOVA

By This Professor

Identity in the Age of Ancestral DNA
Identity in the Age of Ancestral DNA


Your Ancestry, Your Identity

01: Your Ancestry, Your Identity

Do your genes determine (or even define) your essential nature and identity? Or do you build your own identity, ignoring or actively working against your genetic makeup? Explore the essentialist and constructed philosophies and discover how you might incorporate aspects of both into your own view of personal identity.

31 min
What Genetic Testing Brings to Ancestry

02: What Genetic Testing Brings to Ancestry

Labs that provide DNA ancestry information use hundreds of thousands of ancestry-information markers (AIMs)—the mutations in our DNA that help trace the paths of our ancestors. Learn about the AIMs that relate to major identifiable lineages, as well as what can be gleaned from mitochondrial DNA and Y-DNA.

29 min
Sensitive Approaches to Ancestry Results

03: Sensitive Approaches to Ancestry Results

There are many social issues affecting an individual’s emotional response to receiving DNA ancestry results—old attitudes about race and interracial relationships, adoption, children born out of wedlock, and more. Explore how the reciprocal engagement method can help families face unexpected ancestry results and get some tips to consider before ordering your own test.

28 min
When Family Narrative Meets Genetic Testing

04: When Family Narrative Meets Genetic Testing

People want a family narrative that is cohesive, useful, identity-supporting, and will give them the best chance for social survival. DNA just “wants” to move itself forward and is completely neutral on issues of race, subterfuge, or social connection. Explore how to create a strategic family narrative to incorporate the scientific facts of your DNA ancestry results.

30 min
Privacy versus Connection in DNA Testing

05: Privacy versus Connection in DNA Testing

From the now-famous case of Henrietta Lacks to that of the Hagahai people of Papua New Guinea, scientists and government agencies have a history of bad actions with respect to biological samples. With millions of DNA samples now in existence, learn about the laws and programs now in place to protect privacy. Is it enough?

30 min
The DNA Discussion Project Research

06: The DNA Discussion Project Research

Learn about the DNA Discussion Project, its goals, and current results regarding the ways in which DNA ancestry tests are changing identity. Do unanticipated test results cause individuals to change their formal census designation? Do people share their DNA ancestry results with family and friends? And what are the broader social implications of those decisions?

29 min
How Genograms Reveal Your Ancestry

07: How Genograms Reveal Your Ancestry

A genogram is a graphic tool used to explore family history and relationships over a two- to three-generation period. Discover the powerful information that can be conveyed through a genogram—particularly the quality of relationships between family members—as opposed to the traditional family tree diagram.

26 min
Gaining Insight through Your Genetics

08: Gaining Insight through Your Genetics

Although thousands of babies are born each year with the assistance of various reproductive technologies, the science seems to be ahead of our ability to fully comprehend the consequences. Explore this issue by meeting Maria, who learned as a teenager that she was born with the help of intrauterine insemination. How does that knowledge affect an adolescent’s identity?

29 min
Designer Babies and DNA Ancestry

09: Designer Babies and DNA Ancestry

CRISPR, a relatively new gene-editing technology, has tremendous potential to cure genetic diseases. However, the power to alter a human genome could also be used to create “designer babies.” Explore the significant issues that need to be discussed broadly in the culture to avoid unintended consequences, including a replay of historical US laws promoting eugenics.

29 min
Personalized Medicine and Your Genome

10: Personalized Medicine and Your Genome

Medicine based on an individual’s genome hopes to solve numerous disease issues before long. But given that personal identity is much more than any genome, could the “personal” be left out of “personalized” medicine? Explore the issues of epigenetics that must be considered so that larger social determinants of health are not ignored in favor of genetics alone.

30 min
Levels of Your Identity

11: Levels of Your Identity

What happens when your DNA ancestry says one thing, but you feel something else entirely? Can a white man find his true home in the Black community? Can a Japanese woman find an American identity that finally “fits”? Discover the complexity of identity levels by exploring the notorious case of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who became a self-proclaimed Black activist.

31 min
Making Art with DNA Ancestry

12: Making Art with DNA Ancestry

Explore the relationship between DNA ancestry and identity via the artwork of photographer Brooklyn McTavish. Beginning with an individual’s DNA ancestry readout, the artist explores the individual’s responses, emotions, and remaining questions. He then creates images with layers of meaning that are often difficult to convey with the explicit statements of language.

27 min