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Courtesy of Cydney Wong/The Xylom Illustration

Perspective: What I Learned (And Did Not Learn) From Genetic Ancestry Tests

This story is supported by a grant from #BlackinScicomm Week and COMPASS Scicomm. All stories under the brack•ish series can be found here.

 

I used to wish I had invented 23andMe.

I think DNA is the coolest thing. Usually, when asked how I became interested in biomedical research, I cite my 11th-grade "Molecular and Microbiology" elective when we watched a documentary about the human genome project. Seeing so many scientists come together to decode the molecule that governs every biological process in our body amazed me. I wanted to be a part of something like that.

We learned that this process had been commercialized to develop direct-to-consumer (DTC) DNA testing, and now companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com could determine your genetic ancestry from just a saliva sample. As a multiracial, multiethnic young scientist, that sounded like the best idea on earth. I was actually annoyed that I hadn’t come up with it first. I am the perfect face for something like this, I thought. I have DNA from all over the globe, I’m smart, and I’m interested in genomics research. This sounds like my dream career!


Or so I thought at the time.



Cydney (third from left) poses with her extended family in Dartmouth Village, Essequibo, Guyana, the small town where her grandmother was born. Cydney's grandmother took the occasion to introduce her to her oldest living cousin. (Courtesy of Cydney Wong)

 

Throughout my life, the question "What are you?" followed me in every space I entered. Everyone from classmates in middle school to custodians in my college dorm, to strangers in the grocery store wanted to know how someone with an obviously Chinese last name ended up with dark spiral curls and brown skin. With this type of test, I could scientifically answer that question! Aside from my fascination with the science and mathematics behind sequencing technology, I felt drawn to the concept of DNA as what makes each individual different. Since no one else would have my exact results, a test like this could provide numerical evidence of something I took great pride in: my unique personal identity.


Everyone from classmates in middle school to custodians in my college dorm, to strangers in the grocery store wanted to know how someone with an obviously Chinese last name ended up with dark spiral curls and brown skin.

Despite my annoyance at the “what are you?” question, I grew up having a very clear understanding of my racial and ethnic makeup. When I was very young, probably in about first or second grade, I was in a clothing store with one of my friends and her mom. We were deciding what to take into the dressing room when an Asian woman in the store randomly stops and looks at me.

Cydney (top left) poses with her family, including her Chinese grandfather, in Chinatown, New York City. (Courtesy of Cydney Wong)

“Is she Chinese?” she asks my friend’s mom.


Although I was quite shy as a child, I proudly answered. “I’m a quarter Chinese, a quarter Dominican, and half Guyanese.” She seemed shocked I gave such an in-depth answer, smiled awkwardly, and continued with her day.

Regardless, I still felt that someday I had to take one of these tests, like it was designed for someone like me. But what was my plan for when I got my results? Walk around with a printout so I could provide exact percentages to anyone who asked about my ethnicity?


As I got older, I had stopped using fractions and percentages to describe my ethnicity to those who asked because describing myself as “half” or “a quarter” of a race or ethnicity felt like a disservice to my family and to myself.

I already knew my parents’ ancestry, and I was lucky enough to grow up with exposure to Chinese, Guyanese, and Dominican cultures. By the start of my sophomore year of college, I had even visited all three countries. As I got older, I had stopped using fractions and percentages to describe my ethnicity to those who asked because describing myself as “half” or “a quarter” of a race or ethnicity felt like a disservice to my family and to myself. After all, race is a social construct and not defined by the percentage of DNA I inherited from my