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Rick Kittles

Concocted African Ancestry

By the time he reached his teenage years, Kittles found his curiosity intensifying as his white classmates began to identify more strongly with European ethnic groups. "I would say, 'Africa'" when other students asked him about his own roots, Kittles was quoted as saying in the Seattle Times. "Other times I would make stuff up and say, 'I'm a Mandingo.' That bothered me, not knowing more about where in Africa."

Kittles attended the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York as an undergraduate, earning a biology degree there in 1989. He taught biology at the high school level in the New York and Washington areas for several years, winning admission to the graduate biology program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. As a graduate student, Kittles did research on melanin, the pigment that darkens human skin and protects it from solar radiation; Africans and other equatorial peoples frequently exposed to the sun have higher levels of melanin than do humans of European descent. Giving occasional public lectures about melanin, Kittles speculated that high levels of the chemical in the inner ear might account for what some considered a heightened sensitivity to music and rhythm among humans of African descent.

He also investigated interactions between melanin and prescription drugs, and between melanin and illicit drugs such as cocaine. Interest in public-health implications would be typical of Kittles's scholarly research. His published papers, most of them (as is typical in the hard sciences) done in collaboration with other investigators, bore lengthy titles like "High Incidence of Microsatellite Instability in Colorectal Cancer from African Americans." But he gravitated toward subjects with broad social importance, and his eventual scholarly specialties were all hot topics: prostate cancer and its underlying causes, the relationship between genetics and disease prevalence more generally, and the validity (or lack of validity) of the concept of race.

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