Renowned population geneticist Spencer Wells to deliver keynote lecture at Virginia Bioinformatics Institute's 10th anniversary event

Population geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells

Population geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells is the keynote speaker for the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute's 10th anniversary celebration.

BLACKSBURG, Va., Sept. 23, 2010 – The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech will formally celebrate its 10th anniversary on Oct. 7, 2010, with a day of scientific talks, building tours, an art exhibition, and poster sessions, including a keynote lecture by renowned population geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells.

The institute opened its doors in July 2000 with support from Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger, initial funding of $12.3 million from the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, and five employees. Ten years later, it employs more than 240 highly trained personnel, has achieved more than $120 million in active extramural funding (as of June 2010), and occupies a 130,000-square-foot facility on the Virginia Tech campus, as well as offices at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center and in Alexandria, Va., as part of the university’s National Capital Region operations.

In 2009, Harold “Skip” Garner was tapped as the institute’s new executive director to build upon the institute’s strengths in life sciences, biomedicine, and applied high performance computing, as well as expand the institute’s entrepreneurial capabilities.  

“This is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute’s many achievements and showcase what Virginia Tech has to offer the world,” said Garner. “We are excited to have Dr. Spencer Wells, a dynamic speaker and accomplished genetics researcher, to help us mark this special occasion. Our doors are open and all are welcome.”

Wells, a leading population geneticist, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor at Cornell University, will deliver the inaugural Bruno Sobral Lectureship, named after the institute’s founding executive director, at 8:45 a.m. in the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Conference Center located on the corner of Duck Pond Drive and Washington Street on the Virginia Tech campus. 

Wells serves as the director of the Genographic Project, a five-year research partnership between National Geographic and IBM supporting a team of researchers who are using the latest genetic and computational technologies to analyze DNA from people around the world in an effort to learn more about the history of human migration. By analyzing DNA from people worldwide, Wells has determined that all humans alive today are likely descended from one man, Y-chromosomal Adam, who lived in Africa 60,000-90,000 years ago.

Wells received his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. It was during this time that he solidified his commitment to studying genetic diversity in populations to learn more about early human migration. Wells began his field studies in human population genetics in 1996 with a survey of Central Asia, helping to advance the understanding of the Y chromosome and its role in tracing ancestral human migration.  

He served as the director of the Population Genetics Research Group for the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University and led research efforts for a biotechnology company. In 2001, he decided to focus on communicating his scientific discoveries through books and film, producing “The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey” – both a book and documentary airing on PBS and the National Geographic Channel chronicling Wells’ adventures traveling the world to gather DNA for his research. This served as the foundation for the Genographic Project, which has led Wells and his team to over 36 countries across the globe and resulted in Wells’ second book, “Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project.” He has been featured on NBC’s “Today Show,” CNN, and National Public Radio, and was invited to deliver a TED Talk.

Events will continue throughout the day following Wells’ lecture at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute’s on-campus location. All events are free and open to the public. The schedule for the day is as follows:

A university-level Research Institute of Virginia Tech, the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute was established in 2000 with an emphasis on informatics of complex interacting systems scaling the microbiome to the entire globe. It helps solve challenges posed to human health, security, and sustainability. Headquartered at the Blacksburg campus, the institute occupies 154,600 square feet in research facilities, including state-of-the-art core laboratory and high-performance computing facilities, as well as research offices in the Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington, Virginia.