Exploring race and DNA testing

We were delighted to welcome genetic counsellor and PhD researcher Sasha Henriques recently as the guest speaker in our webinar on the topic of race, DNA testing and identity. Run as part of our Reclaiming History Through Science project exploring the role of DNA testing in the lives of ‘brown babies’ families, Sasha shared valuable insights into how genetic information is gathered and used during her conversation with members of the project team.

Headshot of Sasha Henriques smiling at the camera. Sasha is a Black woman wearing a black top with a red vest over it.
Sasha Henriques

About the webinar 'A Conversation on DNA Testing and Race with Sasha Henriques'

A recurring theme in our current work with members of wartime ‘brown babies’ families is that many have little understanding of how DNA testing works, including those who have undergone ancestry testing to find their Black American family members. With our project participants keen to learn more, we invited Sasha Henriques to speak to the group and answer their questions, particularly around the intersection of genetics, conceptions of 'race' and ancestry.

Passionate about science communication, public engagement, and equitable access to genomic knowledge, Sasha wears multiple hats: she is a principal genetic counsellor, a PhD researcher at Wellcome Connecting Science, and a committee member of the Association of UK Genetic Nurses and Counsellors (AGNC). Her time working in Johannesburg, South Africa – where she was once more the only Black genetics counsellor in the country – also contributed to her understanding of how cultural and racial factors influence the framework of those providing or undergoing genetic testing services.

To enable the webinar to be recorded and shared publicly, members of the project facilitation team – Chamion Caballero, Damian Hebron and Laura Smith – engaged Sasha in conversation, putting to her the questions project participants submitted in advance or during the live webinar. The recorded hour-long webinar is now available to view on our YouTube channel, along with several YouTube Shorts extracted from the webinar which share some of Sasha’s insights in bite-size form.

What is a genetic counsellor - and what happens when I send off my DNA test?

Shedding light on various aspects of the complex world of genetic testing, Sasha began by highlighting the role of genetic counsellors. These specialists interpret test results and help people who have been diagnosed with genetic conditions make informed decisions. Emphasising the significance of accurate diagnoses and compassionate counselling, particularly for conditions that disproportionately affect diverse populations, she stressed the need for more racial diversity and culturally informed approaches in genetic counselling.

Moving on to finding DNA family members through DNA testing, Sasha explained what happens when you send your test off: your sample usually goes oversees where becomes part of a reference 'atlas'. Researchers can then use these atlas sources to understand how shared genetic markers can connect people with relatives they may never have known existed.

While these connections have the power to enrich our understanding of ourselves and our heritage, navigating the world of commercial genetic databases also necessitates addressing privacy concerns. Sasha discussed the delicate balance between data sharing and safeguarding individual rights in this rapidly evolving field.

Genomics, as a discipline, is constantly pushing the boundaries of scientific exploration. Sasha highlighted recent breakthroughs in the field, underscoring the importance of ongoing education for both patients and healthcare providers to keep pace with these advancements.

Addressing the question of choosing a company for ancestry tracing, Sasha offered valuable insights, emphasizing that the ‘best’ company depends on what individuals hope to achieve through DNA testing.

Next steps

The reaction to Sasha’s webinar has been really positive, both from within the group and beyond. In response, we will be inviting additional speakers to provide insights into process of DNA testing and ancestry tracing. These webinars will also be uploaded to our YouTube channel. To keep up to date with news of these recordings, sign up to our newsletter or subscribe to our YouTube channel.

‘Reclaiming History Through Science: DNA Testing in the Lives of Brown Babies Families’ is part of the Mindsets + Missions programme funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and delivered by the Museums Association in partnership with The Liminal Space and the Association for Science and Discovery Centres.

Learn more

Watch the recording of the webinar'A Conversation on DNA Testing and Race with Sasha Henriques'.

Learn more about the project Reclaiming History Through Science: DNA Testing in the Lives of ‘Brown Babies families.

Visit our digital exhibition on the ‘Brown Babies’ of WW2 to learn more about the history behind the project