Thursday, February 26, 2015

Three Questions from Spitland

There are three things I think everyone needs to consider before taking a genetic DNA test. No, it's nothing sinister or scary. My three things are lessons I've learned long after testing.

My DNA journey began well over two years ago, when 23andMe dropped their genetic test kits to $99. Yep, please take and analyze my spit. After that, I was doomed. And by doomed, I mean time stolen by that genealogy 'shiny' we all fall victim to; that thing that sends us down the proverbial rabbit hole. DNA is my shiny. (You can read more about me in the DNA tab on the blog menu)

My name is Sally and I'm a DNA test addict. If you're still reading, you might be too.

So here are my questions for you to consider:

(1) Why are you taking a DNA test and what do you expect from it?

(2) Do you have some go-to resources to educate yourself before, during, and after testing?

(3) Do you have endless free time, extreme patience, excellent communication skills, and a knack for data analysis?

Those are the three questions I pose to you. Ideally your answers should be (1) to connect with distant cousins to help further my research, (2) yes, ISOGG is my friend, and (3) absolutely!

Let's explore these questions. These are things I know now but didn't know then, and will hopefully help you during your quest. I am not an 'expert' but I have been analyzing my own tests long enough that I feel like I have found another calling. Genealogy was the first, and adding DNA data analysis to it - ah, perfect! I have personally tested with 23andMe and Ancestry, transferred to FTDNA, tested each of my parents, have a Y test pending for my brother, use GEDMatch and GenomeMate faithfully, and answer questions on various Facebook message boards. Did I mention I check each of my DNA kit sites weekly at a minimum? Yeah, I'm that one.

Back to the questions...

(1) Why are you taking a DNA test and what do you expect from it?

'Because everyone is doing it' is not the right answer. It's great that so many people are testing, don't get me wrong. But ideally you will know what the test will offer you once you do have your results. I had no great expectations, other than hoping to find long lost cousins who could help me shore up some loose ends and further my various lines. I have been working on my own genealogy for over 20 years, like back in the Dark Ages of renting microfilm days. But there are many lines I just can't get past. I hope DNA, in time, will help connect me to others in my distant family.

Many testers I encounter have unrealistic expectations. DNA will not solve every mystery. DNA will not knock down every brick wall. It will not tell you your familial GPS coordinates many moons ago. It is a tool, a means of connection, another method of analysis, but it does NOT provide every answer.

(2) Do you have some go-to resources to educate yourself before, during, and after testing?

The best advice I can offer is educate, educate, educate yourself. DNA and genetic genealogy is so new and so rapidly evolving that it is nearly a full-time job to keep up with. I can't stress enough how valuable reading and learning from others is in this area.

These are the blogs of a few of the real pros in genetic genealogy:
These are but a handful of blog resources. They answer questions and are willing to help. There are many Facebook pages geared toward testing and the test sites. Read them, join them, and you will learn a great deal.

My best web resource is ISOGG, the International Society of Genetic Genealogy. The website (wiki) is loaded with how-to's and charts and files and comparisons and everything a tester could want to know about DNA. Please check them out!

(3) Do you have endless free time, extreme patience, excellent communication skills, and a knack for data analysis?

DNA analysis is a marathon, not a sprint. You will have breakthroughs on occasion. Most of your time will be spent gathering and reviewing and learning.

Digging deep into all of your DNA's potential is not a casual endeavor. Every new test, new website, new cousin connection, and new tree link will take analysis. The one thing about DNA is that the DNA is exact but the connections are anything but. It will require your time. Lots of time. You will need a good way to manage your information or you will be quickly overwhelmed. You will email people with every level of exposure to DNA testing under the sun, so you need to be able to communicate well. You have no idea who is on the other side of your message - a long-time tester or someone brand new.

The only way to know who you may be matching is through your paper genealogy research. Do not neglect this! In fact, this is a great time to flesh out more tree branches, find those siblings of ancestors, create a map of where your people lived and their migration routes. DNA matching is only as good as the leaf to which it connects.

Questions and comments are always welcome. I wish you much success in your journey through genetic genealogy!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

DNA vs Dating

I have been DNA-tested and have been knee-deep in analyzing those results for about two years. For me, it is endlessly fascinating. I love the data analysis and the continual learning. What I don't love so much is the lack of regular communication with my potential cousins. It's an interesting little place, this world of DNA reseach. and it has some unwritten rules. And then I got to thinking...

DNA searching is like dating!

Now I am long married and my children aren't quite at the dating age. But through the media, we are bombarded with ads for dating sites:, eHarmony, ChristianMingle, JDate, and my son's favorite,

You may be chuckling, either at me or at the thought of an online dating site, but I think it's a good comparison!

Taking the Plunge

You enter your, ahem, personal information and maybe a picture (from about 10 years ago, looking awesome) into your profile, hoping to be connected to a perfect match from the website's algorithm. Using a genetic DNA site? Pretty much the same thing.


A match reaches out to you. Or more likely in DNA, it's you reaching out to the match. You carefully tiptoe around, sharing small, but not highly identifiable pieces of information to see if you click: favorite movies or books, or surnames of your great-grandparents. If you're lucky, you get a number to text, or on a DNA site, a profile connection.

The Date

You're finding things in common and decide to meet. In the dating world, maybe it is a movie or coffee or a drink. You find commonalities. You're happy if there is great conversation. You decide if there is intellectual and/or physical attraction. Would you introduce this person to your friends and family? In the DNA world, it's a flurry of emails or messages, and sharing a tree or a database while carefully reviewing your match's family tree. Hmm, do you like the way they created their files? What about their sourcing techniques? Can you live with these differences?! You're happy if there are large matching chromosome segments.

The Aftermath

Do you like this person enough to go out again? Better yet, do you give it a 2-day wait to text or call? And who initiates the follow-up?! Are they really your type, or are they a creeper? Why haven't they texted?! After the initial exchange of family tree information, you have no reply. Maybe for days. Do you email or re-initiate contact? You send three emails. How many emails is too many? Why don't they reply?  Do they think I'm the creeper?!

Back to the Drawing Board

Maybe that wasn't the one for you. You know the phrase: it's not you, it's me. Then try another option to meet people. If you can't get information from a DNA connection, try another. Maybe it's back to searching records, filling out trees with collateral lines and other siblings, and firming up questionable information.

The world of genetic genealogy, while similar to dating, is new and has many of it's own rules of connection and communication. It's taking the time to learn and try and fail and get back up again that will help find you those elusive connections.

If you truly want to further your DNA contact, may I suggest:

  • accept contact on the site
  • reply to emails
  • consider what you write (not "Hey, we're related!")
  • be pleasant and gracious, naturally
  • offer family names to the degree you are comfortable 
  • have a tree posted to your profile, even just a direct lineage tree, if possible
  • just because your surnames don't match, don't discount the DNA
  • update YOUR tree
  • it isn't just names, it's places! let your connection know where your family lived
  • keep reading and learning

There's a relationship for everyone and you will find your connection. Keep on looking for yours!

© 2015 Sally Knudsen