Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

Retired DNA scientist shares avocation for genetic genealogy

Molecular biologist Bob LaRossa will discuss how DNA technologies have revolutionized genealogy research, at UD’s Arsht Hall in Wilmington on June 12.

June 10-13: genealogy and culture lectures

Bob LaRossa is a retired molecular biologist and DuPont research fellow who has combined his professional background and love of history into an avocation for genealogy. Next month, at UD’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Wilmington, he’ll be discussing how DNA technologies have revolutionized genealogy research.

June a la Carte—Eclectic Explorations

June 10-13, 2019
Arsht Hall, Wilmington

Join us for a week of mini-programs about DNA and Genealogy, Negro League Baseball History, Desserts with Dana Herbert, Ocean and Environment, and more. OLLI membership is not required to register for June a la Carte.

Register now or learn more.

“It is not an overstatement to say that DNA-based tools have revolutionized almost every aspect of biology, and genealogy is not an exception,” says LaRossa, who teaches a genealogy workshop at OLLI Wilmington. “Like with other aspects of biology, DNA technologies complement and enhance traditional methods, greatly accelerating progress.”

LaRossa, one of the featured presenters at OLLI’s June a la Carte morning lecture series to be held June 10-13 in Wilmington, will present ‘DNA, Genealogy and Family History’ on June 12.

“DNA technologies have expanded our approaches to family history,” says LaRossa. “Like any disruptive technology, this has upsides and pitfalls. To fully capitalize on molecular genealogy one needs to understand its underpinnings and measurements.” LaRossa aims to provide a primer on those topics, while sharing a few surprises from his own genealogy research journey.

UD’s OLLI instructors are all volunteers, with many teaching subjects directly related to their career-long academic or professional expertise and others teaching courses drawn from their hobbies. And for many like LaRossa, it’s both, sharing a passion backed up by a successful career.

With a genetics, biochemistry and biophysics education from Johns Hopkins, Yale and Stanford, LaRossa’s research involved topics such as mutations to herbicide resistance, and creation of sentinel biosensors used in the wastewater treatment process to detect pollutants and toxins.

“I went to college thinking that I would major in either biology or history,” says LaRossa. In his own family research, DNA became a pivotal tool in reconstructing his family history. “My father had created a book of family history, and lamented that he knew so little about the 900 years that his ancestors spent in the Italian hill town of San Fele. Once I retired, I could utilize my molecular biological skills to further this familial objective.”

LaRossa says that finding family descendants via DNA testing has been extremely rewarding, tracing the LaRossas’ path from San Fele to New York City, where along the way they adopted slightly different last names like La Rossa, La Rosa and LaRose.

LaRossa credits genealogy’s popularity to a desire to connect with our past, and cites the nationwide impact of Alex Haley’s 1976 book Roots. “I think it is an emotional desire to understand our background,” explains LaRossa. “I was born in New York. No one there defined himself as a New Yorker or an American; that was taken for granted. Rather we considered ourselves Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Polish, Black, Jewish, German or Greek, etc. Then along came Alex Haley and Roots,” which greatly accelerated the hobby’s popularity, says LaRossa.

Family history and genealogy courses are perennial favorites at all of UD’s OLLI locations — Dover, Lewes, Ocean View and Wilmington. At the Wilmington OLLI, the genealogy program spans multiple course offerings each semester as well as a genealogy club.

In addition to LaRossa’s presentation, this year’s June a la Carte features the following topics:

  • Environmental change and climate with Delaware State Climatologist Dan Leathers
  • Oceans and the environment with University of Washington oceanography professor Richard Gammon
  • Women’s rights in the Philadelphia region with author Dotty Brown
  • Negro League baseball star Biz Mackey with author Rich Westcott
  • Artifacts and historical memory with author Elizabeth Mosier
  • A conversation with Sanford Robbins, founder of UD’s Resident Ensemble Players (REP)
  • Desserts, history and culture with award-winning chef Dana Herbert

June a la Carte is an annual morning lecture series hosted by UD’s OLLI program and held at Arsht Hall, 2700 Pennsylvania Avenue. This year’s mini-programs take place June 10-13 from 9 a.m. to noon.

UD’s lifelong learning programs are membership-based organizations structured as learning cooperatives for adults 50 and over to take and teach classes together with no grades, exams or educational prerequisites. OLLI membership is not required to register for June a la Carte.

The June a la Carte registration fee is $10 per day ($20 for Thursday’s session), or a discounted rate of $40 for the entire series. The event includes free on-site parking and light refreshments. For more details about OLLI or June a la Carte, or to register, visit https://www.olli.udel.edu/wilmington/june/.


Article by Nora Zelluk
Photo by Tim Ward