BOISE The research station was simple, a folding table parked on the front lawn of a small brick house that sheltered some of the first Basque sheepherders to immigrate to Idaho in the early 1900s.
But then Adrian Odriozola explains why he's traveled about 5,300 miles from his home in Spain to be here, at a Basque festival in downtown Boise, and it gets quite a bit more complicated.
"We are trying to improve the health of the population," said Odriozola, a doctoral student from the University of the Basque Country in Spain.
Odriozola was sent to the United States in early July to collect DNA samples from descendants of the Basque families that left their historically troubled homeland, where the Pyrenees Mountains separate Spain from France, and immigrated to a states such as Idaho, Nevada and California.
The goal: Collect enough DNA to support one of the most comprehensive genetic maps of the ethnic minority.
The University of the Basque Country is funding the research and hopes to explain why large portions of Basques living in their homeland suffer from diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and learn why diabetes is more prevalent among Basques living in the United States.
Odriozola and his research partner, 27-year-old history student Eneko Sanz, spent several weeks at festivals in California, Nevada and here in Idaho, where some 15,000 Basques live and make up the third-largest population in the world, behind Argentina and the Basque homeland on the Spanish-French border.
"Sometimes, it's difficult," Odriozola said. "At a festival people want to party."
The day was still early when he stationed himself at his makeshift research station at the San Inazio Basque Festival in Boise. Odriozola surveyed the block of bars and restaurants, a neighborhood where Basque descendants congregate each year to honor Saint Ignatius.
The Boiseko Gasteak Basque Dancers wouldn't perform for several more hours. Clear plastic cups were filled, for the most part, with nonalcoholic drinks.
And Odriozola, a 26-year-old foreigner who would spend the day persuading Basque descendants to gargle a vial of pink, cinnamon flavored mouthwash and fill out a 50-question survey about their health, was optimistic.
"This will be our strong day," he said.
As the festival rolled out live music, food and dancing, and then waned into the evening, Odriozola and Sanz had collected nearly 100 samples from people like Louise Murgoitio Gunderson. Her grandparents immigrated from the Basque homeland near the end of the 1800s.
"It was a hard life in Spain," said Gunderson, a 56-year-old budget officer with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boise.
She swigged down the pink vial of mouthwash, swished it around in her mouth for 10 seconds, and then spit the liquid back into the clear vial before she started filling in a detailed survey about her and her family's health. Did any of her relatives have a blood disorder? What about tumors? Skin diseases?
The process took about 10 minutes, and Gunderson became "USA169-BOIDV2" in the study, where names are kept anonymous and vials will be identified by coded stickers and studied at a DNA bank at the University of the Basque Country.
There, researchers will try to determine whether environment or genetics played a role in how Basques descendants developed diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes.
But first, the samples will be processed at a lab at Boise State University, where graduate student Mike Davis is also studying Basque DNA for his master's thesis. Davis helped Odriozola and Sanz gather DNA in Idaho.
Altogether, the team collected about 400 samples from Nevada, California and Idaho before Odriozola and Sanz left the United States in late July to return to Spain to process the data they've collected so far. The pair will travel to Latin America later this year to collect more DNA samples.
Few migrant populations present such a perfect test case for explaining whether genetics or the environment is a bigger factor in why large numbers of Basque have developed certain diseases, Davis said. The Basque offer a tight-knit population, essentially identical when it comes their DNA but living in two different countries.
"They've always had this sort of mystery about them," Davis said, "their language, nobody really knows where it came from."
Linguists and historians haven't been able to define the origin of the Basque language, called Euskera, and it has no definite link to any other widely spoken tongues in Europe, said John Bieter, acting director of the Basque Studies Center at Boise State University.
"This leaves the Basque as kind of a mysterious group," Bieter said, "studying their DNA may be one way to unravel that mystery."