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Matthew George

Biochemist Matthew George was born on February 15, 1949 in Birmingham, Alabama. George was awarded an undergraduate scholarship to attend Wiley College in Marshall, Texas where he received his B.S. degree in chemistry and biology in 1971. George went on to earn his M.S. degree in microbiology and biochemistry in 1974 from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). In 1982, George graduated with his Ph.D. degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley.

From 1981 to 1984, George studied genetics and biochemistry at the San Diego Zoo and the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland. George’s career at Howard University College of Medicine began in 1984 when he became an assistant professor of biochemistry. In 1992, he was promoted to associate professor. George’s research focused on the evolution and interactions of mitochondrial DNA as well as cancer metastasis. He was instrumental in the development of the “mitochondrial Eve hypothesis,” which attempts to explain the origin of humankind. George studies the molecular structure and behavior of mitochondrial DNA which traced humans back to a common ancestor that lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Between 1995 and 1997, George served as senior scientist on the African Burial Ground Project where he traced 200 year old remains back to West African locations by analyzing DNA from bones. Since 2001, George has served as chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Howard University College of Medicine.

George has authored numerous scientific research articles, which have appeared in journals such as the Journal of Molecular Biological Evolution. In addition, his research has been funded by prestigious organizations such as the National Institute of Health, the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Human Genome Research. His research on mitochondrial DNA was featured in the exhibit “Science in American Life,” found in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In addition to his research, George has mentored research students including several dissertation prize winners.

George lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife Yolanda George, who is an education program director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

George Matthew was interviewed by The HsitoryMakers on January 17, 2013.

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Wiley College

Clark Atlanta University

University of California, Berkeley

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Paris, France, Florence, Italy

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Be good.

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District of Columbia

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Pie (Sweet Potato)

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Biochemist and geneticist Matthew George (1949 - ) served as the senior scientist on the African Burial Ground Project in New York City.


Atlanta University

University of California, Berkeley

San Diego Zoo

National Cancer Institute

Howard University

National Center for Human Genome Research

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Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Matthew George's interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Matthew George lists his favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Matthew George talks about his mother, her growing up and his maternal grandfather</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Matthew George talks about his father's relationship with his mother</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Matthew George talks about his father's growing up, his career, and his paternal relatives</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Matthew George talks about how his parents met and his siblings</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Matthew George talks about his likeness to his parents and his parents' relationship</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Matthew George describes his earliest childhood memories</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Matthew George describes his childhood home in the Loveman's Village projects</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Matthew George talks about growing up in the projects and his influence on his brothers and sisters</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Matthew George talks about his childhood memories, his upbringing in the church, and the evolution of his religious views</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Matthew George talks about his appreciation of the newspaper and the bombing incidents in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Era</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Matthew George talks about his academic performance and his work ethic</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Matthew George talks about his elementary school teacher, Annie Mae Mitchell Smith</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Matthew George talks about his father's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Matthew George talks about his mother's concerns about the Civil Rights Movement and the origin of the derogatory term, "bama"</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Matthew George talks about his childhood aspirations, his desire to be different, and his world view during his youth</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Matthew George talks about his high school's curricular structure</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Matthew George talks about his experience being inducted into the National Honor Society in high school</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Matthew George talks about his extracurricular activities and his social status in high school</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Matthew George talks about his high school counselor, Ms. Coman, and her influence on his decision to attend Wiley College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Matthew George talks about his decision to major in science at Wiley College and preparing for his high school Salutatorian speech</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Matthew George talks about his influence on his brothers and sisters</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Matthew George talks about his jobs during school</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Matthew George talks about segregation in Alabama</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Matthew George talks about his trip to Marshall, Texas and his first night at Wiley College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Matthew George talks about his peers and the positive intellectual environment at Wiley College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Matthew George talks about his decision to major in science and his experience at Wiley College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Matthew George talks about his studies, his professors, and his financial aid at Wiley College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Matthew George talks about his professors at Atlanta University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Matthew George talks about the faculty at Atlanta University and meeting his wife</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Matthew George talks about his wife and the birth of his son</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Matthew George talks about him and his wife's experiences defending their theses</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Matthew George talks about moving to California</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Matthew George talks about his admittance to and his financial aid at the University of California, Berkeley</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Matthew George talks about the difference between covert racism and overt racism</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Matthew George talks about how he matched with his Ph.D. Advisor, Allan C. Wilson</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Matthew George talks about his advisor's research interests</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Matthew George talks about mitochondrial DNA and the mitochondrial Eve</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Matthew George talks about his colleague, Rebecca Cann, and his experiences working with her</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Matthew George talks about his work with his doctoral advisor and his experience getting his dissertation completed</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Matthew George talks about his research with Oliver Ryder at the San Diego Zoo</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Matthew George describes his postdoctoral research at the National Cancer Institute, his appointment to Howard University, and his teaching influences</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Matthew George talks about his student, Daryl Basham, and the use of DNA fingerprinting in criminal investigation</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Matthew George talks about the ethics regarding genetic testing and the risks associated with modifying DNA sequencing</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Matthew George talks about his work on the African Burial Ground Project with Michael Blakey</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Matthew George talks about working with his wife</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Matthew George talks about the challenges of doing research at an HBCU</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Matthew George reflects on his career</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Matthew George reflects on his legacy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Matthew George talks about his hopes and concerns for the African American community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Matthew George talks about his family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Matthew George talks about his experience at the Science and American Life exhibit and being recognized</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Matthew George talks about how he would like to be remembered</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Matthew George describes his photos</a>







Matthew George talks about his experience being inducted into the National Honor Society in high school
Matthew George talks about his work on the African Burial Ground Project with Michael Blakey
Also, during the 11th grade, one of my friends she came to me and said "Something good is gonna happen to you today." "What the heck are you talking about?" So you know we have assembly, and where you have these (unclear) monthly meetings and everything, and so I'm there in assembly with a bunch of my other friends, and I'm looking at the program, it's--you think it's gonna be dumb and boring which most of them were, but that particular day it's about the National Honor Society and suddenly you hear your name (laughter).$$So you were on it but didn't know it.$$Had no clue, but she knew. And the other thing about it was that it was a lot of other project kids that were being inducted at the same time. So we had the middle class kids who normally, you know, get inducted, and then there was us. It almost like a little first; it was like we were like the project slash ghetto kids being culled in with the middle class--the kids from the Honeysuckle Circles and the Honeysuckle Hills.$$Now that's a real name of a real group?$$Honeysuckle Circle, Honeysuckle Hill, okay? That was the name of the neighborhood. If you had a couple of bucks, you could get you a nice brick house, you could be an upper-class black person and you lived it. Fred Shuttlesworth (laughter); that's when it got bombed (laughter), okay? (Simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous)--On Honeysuckle Hill?$$Yeah, or something like that. But here's the kicker, and Yolanda's gonna get me for this (laughter). "Don't call any names." I'm sorry, it's a part of my life. Reverend [John Wesley] Rice lived in the Honeysuckle Circles and the Honeysuckle Hills. And he was the high school counselor.$$And Reverend Rice is the father of our former Secretary of State?$$Condoleezza's daddy.$$Condoleezza, okay.$$Okay? And so here it is, we're more or less, you know, busting up the show because we may not be the right type of people (laughter), but they can't deny the numbers, you know. We got the GPA's, we got the grades and things like that, but never once--at least me, I don't know about the others, but during those three years in high school, I never was counseled by Reverend Rice about a possibility or an opportunity to go to college.$$So--well wait a minute; now you're saying that you're in a National Honor Society--$$Yes.$$--you clearly are working above the level of the general course (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous)--But again--$$--but (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous)--remember what--remember, from the very beginning what I was told by my mom [Rosetta Johnson] to do when I go to school, right? That was, that was my mind set. This is how naive, this is just how dutiful I was, this is what I do. This is what I--I followed orders, rules and regulations.$$And you were the first in your family to get that far because you're the oldest, right?$$Yeah, oh yeah.$$So (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous)--Yeah, I'm, I'm--every step I take you know, I'm breaking ground.$$Yeah, and I guess they're looking forward to just you graduating from high school, right?$$Exact--this is--they told me "All we can give you is a high school education. Everything else is on your own. This is why we cannot give you $35.00 for vocational school. We can make certain that you have enough food to eat, the lights on, heat is on, gas, all that kind of stuff. We will give you what you need. I will wash your clothes, I will iron your clothes, okay? You do the rest, okay?"$$But to think of Reverend Rice (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous)--I'm not trying to--$$(Simultaneous)--a counselor, I know you're not trying to do that, but if this is--I believe what you're saying that he didn't do it. If he didn't counsel you then, you know, he's missing an opportunity--I don't know if everybody with your qualifications didn't get counseled, but that seems like a really--that seems like something that really slipped by; a really important person that slipped past him that he should have helped.$$Well, like I said, it wasn't just me I mean--as I said, there were several other project kids that were also inducted at the time. It was the strangest honor society that they've ever had, you know. We weren't the best dressed, we weren't the most well-spoken or anything like that, but we were the kids that got the job done. We did well academically, and the rankings said this is where we belong, and once we got into the honor society for our high school, the whole set of dynamics changed, your know; it really changed. And we became little heroes, if you will, to all of the people that did not live in the Honeysuckle Circles and the Honeysuckle Hills; they were just like 'bout time, thank you guys, okay--and girls because it wasn't just guys, I mean there were some females that were inducted that year and they also didn't live in the right places. But as a little collective and as a group, they were so proud of us because we were them; we were them.$$Okay.$Now this is something that's really important for--in a lot of different ways in terms of a history project like I was in, is the African Burial Ground Project in New York City. Tell us--I guess you can just set it up by saying that construction workers discovered a gravesite--$$Emm hmm.$$--that was identified by archeologists, I guess, as an African burial ground--$$Right.$$--a place where Africans brought over here enslaved in New York City unloading boats and that sort of thing back in the 1600's I guess (simultaneous)--$$Yeah, today the bones are like--well we said 200 years old, so you can just extrapolate to, yeah.$$So the decision was to study those (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous)--Well, right.$$(Simultaneous)--(Inaudible response).$$(Simultaneous)--Yeah, Michael Blakey, who used to be here in the Anthropology Department, was very much interested in that because, not only--by looking at the bones solely, you could look at--you could also tell about the work conditions, where the breaks occurred; is it on the clavicle, is it on the ribs, and things like that. Look in the clothing, what else is in the coffin gives you an idea what type of life these people led. The question then becomes well, where did these people come from? What is the origin of the skeletal remains? And so he wanted to have a genetic component to it, so from the anthropological part and sociological part, he was expert in that and he'd asked me to come on as a senior scientist to do the genetic part, so part of what I had wanted to do was to not only do that by using mitochondrial DNA because I knew how to isolate DNA from what we now call ancient materials--anything that's extinct or old--because you can do this technique called a Polymerase Chain Reaction so even minute amounts--you can put in specific little pieces of DNA to get large pieces of DNA back. Then you do DNA sequence and then you can see--compare what these sequences are closely related to in terms of different ethnic groups.$$What's that process called again?$$PCR, the Polymerase Chain Reaction. When that technique was developed, the person immediately got a Nobel Prize (laughter), okay? This is what gets people in trouble; this is your CSI. This is where your single strand of hair with a hair root and some DNA, this is what can be amplified to get--this is enough working material. Your DNA does not have to be purified; you put in the right set of primers, okay, that will actually allow you to amplify a specific set of sequences--that gold standard set of sequences, and they turn out to be yours, they got you. Lick a stamp, smoke a cigarette, wherever you get cells; this is why they say just rub the cheek cells, boom; break them open and DNA will spill out, get your probes in, and you're good. So I wanted to use that technique by using hair samples, so I just use--and you wanted--since the technique is so sensitive, you've got to make certain that your sample is not contaminated, to you have to test yourself, you have to test the workers around you to make certain that the sequences that you finally get back are those only from the bone. So I'd also wanted to mix in trained graduate students in Howard to use this technique and so it takes time when you're trying to get students who have little to no experience in a laboratory. So my end of the deal was a little bit slower than Michael would have like to see and this is where Rick Kittles came in; he's working solo, independent at NIH [National Institutes of Health] and everything like that; all he's doing is research. But that's beside the point; in the end, using the set of primers that I had for mitochondrial DNA and doing the DNA sequence, we were able to determine that the skeletal remains were from a region in West Africa, in a so-called Yoruba Tribe, and that worked out really well. And the other thing about grave sites like that is that, just as I told you early on about working for a dollar and a dime cutting grass in Elmwood Cemetery, slave graves were always kept separate from the white graves too, so that's another thing that made it useful in terms of like 'hey, what we're gonna find here is simply gonna be a slave or African origin,' and so that led the sociology and sociological part of anthropology as well, so then physical anthropologies, bones, the cultural parties, the social anthropology, so it's a huge team, large effort; and I think it paid off in a whole number of ways.$$Okay. So, you started this project in 1995--$$Emm hmm.$$--and I think it reached its conclusion with a publication of the findings (simultaneous)--$$Right, in 2009--$$(Simultaneous)--2009. Okay, that was a long time.$$Yeah, there was a lot of work. And you know, if you were to take a look on my book shelf, you could see--it was funded by the GSA, the government--what is it, the Government Services Administration?$$Emm hmm.$$Yeah. It was General Services Administration.$$Emm hmm.$$It was a tremendous number of people, and some things--there was some politics involved in it amongst us as scientists as well, so that probably added to it taking so long, and then plus with Michael transferring out to a school in Virginia. But Michael was a visionary and a strong advocate for this particular program, and I appreciate the time and effort that he spent, you know, in getting all of us involved in it.