Dozens of international media outlets – including La Repubblica, The Times of London, BBC, Al Jazeera; and Associated Press reports published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, and others – have reported on a group of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) undergraduate students that is collecting DNA samples from Venetians to trace their genetic origins and subsequent expansion across the region. This team of students is based at WPI's Venice Project Center, which for the past two decades has focused the attention of WPI students on science and engineering projects. Through this particular project, the WPI students will contribute 350 DNA samples to the National Geographic Society and IBM's Genographic Project for its broader, worldwide genealogical study of DNA (with more than 100,000 samples) and human origins. The Genographic Project study is aimed at producing an atlas of the ancient genetic pathways of the original human migrations across the continents more than 10,000 years ago.
The students capitalized on a Nov. 14, 2009 mock funeral procession in Venice, Italy, which was held to mark the city's dwindling population; over the years, native Venetians have fled the expensive lagoon city for cheaper housing and easier living. Tourism has driven up food and property prices in the city, and, as a result, its native population has decreased by two-thirds since the 1950s, having now dipped below 60,000. Two years ago, funeral organizers, passionate about their city, vowed to hold a mock funeral once the population hit less than 60,000 residents, to protest it turning into a community of tourists. Thousands attended this mock funeral, and the WPI students – senior Debora Afezolli and juniors Benjamin Allen, Jaclyn Hepworth, and Andrew J. Kazanovicz – found an opportunity in the large crowds. The group took DNA samples from dozens of male Venetians to determine if their origins came from central Europe or northern Turkey. The information will be added to a databank of real Venetians, who risk becoming extinct.
This team's research complements other historically significant projects assigned to the Venice Project Center over the past 20 years: Students have measured the depth of the city's canals, worked to reduce the damage caused by boats traveling through the city and its lagoons, and documented thousands of public art pieces. This accumulated knowledge base contains photos, videos, and other recorded information that will ultimately be the foundation for the restoration and maintenance of the city's treasures and infrastructures, and for historians in Italy and throughout the world. For more information on the Venice Project Center, read its blog.
Advised by Professor Fabio Carrera, director of the WPI Venice Project Center; and Professor Daniel Gibson, the students' research is being conducted for one of two projects that are required for graduation from WPI. Undertaken in the junior and senior years, these projects provide WPI students with opportunities to apply classroom and lab-acquired knowledge to solve important real-world problems. Student projects are conducted both on and off campus; more than 60 percent of students complete at least one project through the WPI Global Projects Program at one of its 26 Project Centers on five continents.