Free lecture to look at 'Races, Faces and Human Genetic Diversity'

January 10, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A free public lecture titled "Races, Faces and Human Genetic Diversity" will take place at 11 a.m. Jan. 19, in 100 Thomas Building. The speaker will be Mark D. Shriver, a professor of anthropology and genetics at Penn State.

The event is the first of six lectures in the 2013 Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science, a free minicourse for the general public with the theme "Your Genes: How They Contribute to Who You Are." No registration is required. The lectures take place from 11 a.m. to about 12:30 p.m. on six consecutive Saturday mornings, in 100 Thomas Building.

In his lecture, Shriver will explain how the genes determining "race," skin color and facial features are not only some of the most fascinating, but also some of the fastest evolving. He will describe how these genes likely have been shaped by the forces of natural selection, as well as sexual selection, which includes competition and mate choice. In addition, Shriver will discuss his personal genetic-ancestry revelations -- how his research led to the discovery of recent West African and Native American ancestry within his own family. Finally, he will address how forensic science, and society in general, can benefit from increased knowledge about human genetic ancestry and how differences in skin color and face shape are both literally and figuratively superficial.

In his research, Shriver addresses questions related to recent human evolution -- in particular, the evolution that took place during and after the spread of anatomically modern humans across the globe. In addition to skin pigmentation and facial features, Shriver also has studied hair and eye color, risk of preterm birth, adaptation to altitude and risk of type-2 diabetes. Most recently, Shriver's lab has been collecting 3-D images of faces, analyzing the DNA of the photographed individuals and printing 3-D images of the individuals' faces. In this study, Shriver also is investigating human perception -- for example, how study volunteers, depending on their own life experiences and genetic ancestry, categorize other individuals' faces as "Native American," "hispanic," "black," "mixed" or "white."

In addition to the above research activities, Shriver's lab occasionally consults for law-enforcement agencies by helping officials to use science to further justice and to improve public safety. In 2003, Shriver assisted Louisiana State Police in their investigation of a serial rapist and murderer. He and his team began by using ancestry markers they had developed to analyze DNA found at crime scenes. They then were able to point detectives in the direction of a group of suspects they had not previously considered. After police broadened their investigation based on Shriver's suggestions, police apprehended a suspect who was later proven to be the rapist-murderer.

Finally, Shriver has consulted for and been interviewed on many TV documentaries, including "Is it Better to Be Mixed Race?," "Motherland," "The Difference" and the PBS series "African American Lives" in which a test he developed was used to analyze the DNA of Skip Gates, Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities. Inspired by his involvement in documentaries, Shriver has developed classes at Penn State that use video as a teaching and learning tool. In these classes, future scientists and science educators are encouraged to explore new forms of public outreach and to combat anti-science propaganda through more-effective forms of science communication.

Shriver has published more than 100 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals and his work on skin-color genes has been featured on the covers of Science and Cell. He has presented invited talks at conferences and workshops across the United States and internationally. He received a doctoral degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in 1993 and a bachelor's degree in biology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1987.

The Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science is a program of the Penn State Eberly College of Science that is designed for the enjoyment and education of residents of the Central Pennsylvania area and beyond. For more information or access assistance, contact the Eberly College of Science Office of Media Relations and Public Information by telephone at (814) 863-8453 or by email to More information about the Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science, including archived recordings of previous lectures and a list of other lectures in the 2013 series, is available at


  • Mark Shriver is a professor of anthropology and genetics at Penn State.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated January 09, 2015