theGrio's 100: Dr. Rick Kittles, uncovering our genetic roots

african kings

Who is Dr. Rick Kittles?

Rick Kittles, PhD, 47, has traced the ancestry of over 100,000 African-Americans, including Oprah Winfrey, Isaiah Washington, Spike Lee and India Arie in his role as  co-founder and scientific director of African Ancestry, Inc. He’s also an associate professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he runs the UIC Institute of Human Genetics.

Outside of ancestry, his other research projects focus on how a person’s genetic makeup can be linked to certain diseases.

“Ever since middle school, I was always interested in how and why people looked different and why some got sick while others didn’t,” he explains. “I knew that the study of DNA would be helpful.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology, he received his PhD in biological anthropology and subsequently spent a year at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Why is he on theGrio’s 100?

Kittles was ahead of his time. Less than a decade ago, Kittles’ work of using specific genetic markers to decipher ancestry was rejected by his colleagues. Now, using these markers has become a standard in biomedical research.

He has used international collaborations to recruit individuals of African descent from Washington, D.C. and Chicago, as well as indigenous West Africans from rural Nigeria and the Caribbean for his genetic studies on disease. And, he continues to utilize genetic research to investigate diseases that affect the African-American community, such as sickle cell disease, colon cancer and prostate cancer.

His extensive research on the genetics of prostate cancer among African-Americans and West Africans has garnered several grants and awards. Now, he’s looking into the relationship between vitamin D deficiency and prostate cancer.

What’s next for Dr. Kittles?

His DNA research will soon branch out to include uterine fibroids. Fibroids affect African-American women three times more often than other women, yet the reasons for this disparity are unknown. Kittles and his team plan to examine the genetic and environmental factors that factor into who ultimately develops these tumors.

Kittles is also working to develop a research center dedicated to the study of black men’s health.