Academy Award-winning actress Helen Hunt never met her paternal grandmother and thus didn’t know much about her ancestral history on that side of her family. To trace her family tree, she needed a historian.
Enter Dr. Shannon Risk, an assistant professor of history at Niagara University.
Oh, and NBC, too.
Hunt’s investigation into her family history takes place during an episode of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, airing at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 23, 2012. Dr. Risk appears in the episode, for which a trailer can be viewed here (Dr. Risk can be seen at the 0:23 mark).
With the help of Dr. Risk, Hunt learns that her great-great-grandfather was a Jewish immigrant involved in the launching of Wells Fargo. As she continues her search, Hunt also discovers that her great-great-grandmother was instrumental in the fight for women’s voting rights.
Dr. Risk was chosen for the show based on a May 2009 dissertation that she authored while pursuing her doctorate from the University of Maine. The thesis studied 19th century woman suffrage movements in Maine and New Brunswick.
“Imagine someone actually reading my dissertation,” joked Dr. Risk.
She and Hunt, who Dr. Risk described as “friendly and engaging,” filmed together for about three hours in November 2011.
“I was very nervous about filming, about being the so-called expert,” admitted the native of Independence, Iowa. “The production team was incredibly hospitable and put me right at ease. Also, we filmed at the Maine Historical Society, and I am very familiar with the staff members who work there since I had worked with them during my graduate career.”
Who Do You Think You Are? follows some of today’s most beloved and iconic celebrities as they embark on personal journeys into their family histories. Previous episodes have profiled former NFL star Jerome Bettis, singer Reba McEntire and actresses Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow
“(Helen and I) talked about the uniqueness of the show, how it’s a very personal journey for each person who delves into their family history,” Dr. Risk added. “It was nice for me to be a part of Helen’s journey of discovery.”
A graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Risk holds a master’s degree and Ph.D. in American history from the University of Maine. She is also a former Fulbright scholar and has published two books.