DNA and Genealogy – Now’s the Time to Learn

By Carolyn L Barkley

I’ve been happily doing genealogical research for over twenty years. As time has progressed, my learning curve, sizeable in the beginning, has flattened somewhat, increasing as I encounter a new location or resource. Recently, however, it has leapt to new heights as I begin a new role as the DNA surname project administrator for Clan Barclay International.

It was probably the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 that first made me aware of DNA findings. I became aware of its applications to genealogical research, particularly in terms of understanding one’s family medical history, although I had no experience within my own research. After beginning to work with the Barclay DNA project, however, I realize how much there is to learn, even at the most elementary level. It has been a good reminder that it is always important to do thoughtful research before leaping into leadership or participation in a project. Luckily, resources abound:

  • Cyndislist is a good place to start to identify online resources on the topic. My search under the heading “Genetics, DNA & Family Healthâ€? resulted in eleven pages of sites. Under general resource sites is an article by Donn Devine entitled “Solving the Mystery: DNA Tests for Your Researchâ€? (at ancestry.com’s Ancestry Magazine Archives, 1 September 2000) as well as Chris Pomery’s DNA Portal page (2002) entitled, “DNA & the Family Historian,â€?described as “a primer on DNA testing and genetics for family historians” (to access this article google Chris Pomery’s DNA Portal). My second Cyndislist search, under the heading “Surname DNA Studies and Projects,â€? resulted in twenty-seven pages of sites including general resource sites, mailing lists, newsgroups and chat opportunities, as well as listings of established DNA projects. Be thorough in investigating such lists. While the alphabetical listing of DNA projects does not include my Barclay project, a check under “General Resource Sites/Family Tree DNA – Surname Projectsâ€? did locate my specific project.
  • Periodicals provide many opportunities to learn more about DNA and its genealogical applications. Search PERSI [Periodical Source Index], available through heritagequest.com and your local public library, to discover what journal articles have been written on the topic. A search for “DNAâ€? resulted in 316 journal and newsletter articles. Ask your librarian to help you identify other periodical and newspaper indices that can help you identify information in publications in other disciplines, and then request interlibrary loan copies of those not available at your library. Be sure to check your own subscriptions. For example, the April 2008 issue of Family Chronicle features an article by Susan C. Meates entitled “Adding DNA to Your Family Tree.â€?
  • Books will provide information in more depth. Several titles to look for include:
    Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and Ann Turner (Rodale, 2004).
    DNA and Genealogy by Colleen Fitzpatrick and Andrew Yeiser (Rice Book Press, 2005)
    Family Diseases: Are You At Risk? By Myra Vanderpool Gormley (Clearfield, 1989, 1998)
    Unlocking Your Genetic History: a Step-by-Step Guide to Discovering Your Family’s Medical and Genetic Heritage by Thomas H. Shawker (National Genealogical Society Guide #6, 2004)
    Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry by Bryan Sykes (Norton, 2000)
    The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA by Edward Ball (Simon & Schuster, 2007)
    Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project by Spencer Wells (National Geographic, 2006)
    Saxons, Vikings and Celts: the Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland by Bryan Sykes (Norton, reprinted 2007)
  • Attend conferences, whether at the local, state, or national levels. For example, on Saturday at next week’s NGS Conference in the States in Kansas City (May 13-17), an entire lecture track is devoted to DNA, featuring three lectures by Thomas H. Shawker (see Unlocking Your Genetic Heritage above) entitled “Compiling Your Family Health History,â€? “DNA Testing: The Very, Very Basicsâ€? and “Race, Ethnicity, and Ancestry: Genetic Genealogy; DNA Testing.â€? Other DNA programs at the conference include “The Nuts and Bolts of Using DNA Testingâ€? by Buford Joseph Suffridge, D. D. S., “DNA Testing for Genealogy: A Surname Project and Resultsâ€? by Robert McLaren; and “What DNA Can Show: Case Studies of Five Practical Applications to Genealogyâ€? by Donn Devine. I also know of a Virginia genealogical society that devoted its annual seminar to this topic.

Finally, after you have acquired a comfortable level of knowledge about genetic genealogy, consider being tested. First, be sure to research the various companies and organizations that provide DNA testing services. Cyndislist.com, under “Professional Services & DNA Testing� lists over a dozen. Appendix B in Smolenyak’s book (see Trace Your Roots with DNA above) is an excellent starting point as it provides contact and other basic information for eleven DNA testing companies. Her inclusion of available products and company-specific services and resources is particularly helpful. Among the questions you should consider: Does the company provide the type of test most useful for my research? Does the company already offer a project for my surname or will I have to participate on my own? If a project is available, how will I be able to communicate about possible matches with others in the study? Are there products available such as charts, newsletters, or accessible databases that will be helpful to me? What does the company web-site look like? Is it easy to use? Is it updated regularly? What is the cost of my test and what reports will I receive?

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