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Human origins focus of center

UCSD, Salk mark opening with public symposium

For the past 10 years, local researchers have been working behind the scenes exploring the origins of humanity.

On Friday, the multidisciplinary group from UCSD and The Salk Institute for Biological Studies moves its work into the public arena with the first symposium to mark the opening of the Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA).

Co-directors of the center are Ajit Varki and Margaret J. Schoeninger of UCSD and Fred Gage of The Salk Institute.

Varki, a La Jolla resident who has been at UCSD since 1982, explained that CARTA is one of the first attempts to bring together such a broad range of scientists to study human origins from a fact-based approach.

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He described the center as “transdisciplinary,” meaning transcending disciplines and breaking down walls among them. Projects may include setting up an online museum of comparative anthropogeny.

Based on fact

“We’re not getting into the religious, social and political controversies,” he said, adding that they’re looking at “all available scientifically verifiable evidence” in their search to explain what makes us human.

The goals of the new center, outlined in a news release, include “understanding more about human and primate genetics and evolution to advancing relevant knowledge in areas such as language, communication and cognition, human society and culture.”

As part of its mission, the center will reach out to the public and to students to involve them in the discussions, he said.

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Friday’s symposium at the Price Center East Ballroom is the first of what will likely be two or three events open to the public each year.

While sessions will cover topics ranging from paleoanthropology to prehistoric art, speakers have been asked to talk a bit about their own research as well as to focus on “the big questions about human origin,” added Varki.

It’s aimed at lay people with some science education, he noted.

A UCSD spokeswoman said, “Varki was among the first researchers to study the genomic differences between chimpanzees and humans. He also played a key role in advocating for a chimpanzee genome project, while continuing to emphasize the need for ethical treatment of chimpanzees in research.”

He was one of the first to study the genomic links between chimpanzees and humans.

Varki, who began his career as a physician and is now a professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine, said the center isn’t dealing in “classical science” where research can conduct controlled experiments.

Shoeninger is an anthropology professor and Gage, is a professor in the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk and adjunct professor of neurosciences at UCSD. He is also a La Jolla resident.

What: Symposium on anthropogeny

When: Friday, Sept. 19, 1-5 p.m.

Where: UCSD Price Center East Ballroom

Cost: Free

RSVP or for information: cartaadmin@ucsd.edu