Thinking Outside the Box

Some of you may know that I’m speaking again at the Family Tree DNA Conference for project administrators being held in November in Houston.  This is the 11th conference, and I’ve attended them all.

I want to first and foremost thank Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld for hosting this legendary conference, for the 11th time, and for the opportunity and honor to speak to the attendees.

As I’ve been getting my thoughts and my presentation together for this conference, a couple of things have come to mind that I’d like to share.

My conference topic is “Y DNA to Autosomal Case Study – Kicking it Up a Notch.”

I know, the title doesn’t sound terribly interesting, but believe me, after beginning innocently enough, it turned out to be the project from Hell.  Followed by very interesting discoveries whereby it redeemed itself from Hell.

The session description is:

The Crumley surname project was relatively small and had already answered the burning question for which it was created.  Had it served its only purpose?  What else could be done?  The project administrators transitioned this Y DNA project to a Y-plus-autosomal DNA project quite successfully – and made some surprising discoveries along the way.  How did they go from a base of 5 to more than 50 participants in a few weeks?  What did they discover?  How do the descendants of two men born in the 1730s compare autosomally? (Yes, we have autosomal comparative data to 9th cousins.)  What can you learn and how can existing Y projects become the foundation of a hugely successful autosomal project?

But I have to tell you the truth….I made myself insane with this project.  I have over 50 people that had to be hand compared to each other – one by one.  If you’re counting, that’s 1250+ individual comparisons.  The results had to be compiled – which resulted in a spreadsheet of almost 9000 rows.  The relationships of the participants had to be defined, their genealogy collected and assembled and the results analyzed.  Which is what, of course, led to the discoveries I’ll be discussing at the conference.

During the time when I was doing all of those comparisons, I asked myself over and over, “why the dickens am I doing this?”

I realized sometime in the middle of the night last night – the answer to “why I’m doing this,” is really the answer to all of the questions about genetic genealogy research.

In fact, it’s exactly like this quilt.

Thinking Outside the Box

Ok, so what is a quilt doing in the middle of this genetic genealogy article?

Is it even a quilt?

It’s not square like a quilt…but it has blocks – well triangle blocks, three layers and a binding…and it was made by a quilter.  Me.  So it must be a quilt – but it’s unlike any other quilt in many ways.

Its name?

Thinking Outside the Box

That’s at once the disease and the cure!  And it’s the answer.

And it all started with Bennett Greenspan.

undeniable bennett

In the middle of the night, I realized that the fundamental questions in all of genetic genealogy research begin with the words, “Why can’t we…..”

Had Bennett Greenspan not asked that question, and not once, but repeatedly, until he received a satisfactory answer, the field of genetic genealogy would never have existed.

For those not familiar with this legendary story, Bennett, a genealogist (just like the rest of us) back in the prehistoric days of 1999, wanted to know why he couldn’t compare the Y chromosome of one man with a particular surname to another man with the same surname to see if they shared a common ancestor.  He took that question to scientists who worked with the Y chromosome.  Let’s just say the scientists weren’t terribly receptive.

Bennett was politely refused, then more firmly refused, but Bennett persisted until Michael Hammer gave up resisting and just ran the test to get rid of Bennett.  But that didn’t work either, because Bennett had more questions.  Couldn’t someone form a company to do this?  Couldn’t Michael Hammer’s lab at the University of Arizona run those tests for that company, which would come to be known as Family Tree DNA.  Questions begat questions.  History was, unknowingly, being made.  The answers and results of course, we all know about…but had it not been for Bennett’s bravery to ask that initial question – and to persist in the face of rejection and adversity – none of this would have happened.

Bennett didn’t have a crystal ball.  He couldn’t have known that an entire industry would evolve from his simple act of genealogical frustration.  But Bennett is who he is and he continued to ask that question and pursue the answer.

As I spent days and days working through the 50 participants’ data in the Crumley project, I often wanted to quit, but I’m either too anal or too OCD or too persistent to do that.  (No, we’re not voting on that topic:)  I had to finish.  And thank goodness I did, because the discoveries were there waiting for me – but I couldn’t have known that until AFTER I did the work that revealed them.  Had I stopped or never begun, I would never have known.  Same with Bennett – thank goodness he persisted.

So first, I had to first ask the question, “Why can’t we….?” Or more appropriate, “What can we…?” and proceed to find out.

In the field of genetic genealogy, and much more broadly applicable as well, if you never ask that question, you’ll never be wrong or make mistakes.  You’ll never be made fun of.  Your work will never be criticized.  You’ll never be rejected.  You’ll be entirely safe.

But you know what else????

You’ll never be right either.

You’ll never push the frontier.

You’ll never inspire other people to ask that same question.

You’ll never make that discovery.

Because you never took the risk of thinking, and acting, outside the box.

Thanks Bennett.

For being brave enough to persist in the face of adversity…

For allowing that question to burn you to action…

For the revolution you started…

For being a leader, an inspiration and our champion…

For providing a supportive and encouraging environment to conduct our own personal and broader genetic genealogy research…

For facilitating our insanity as citizen scientists…

For thinking outside of the box…




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31 thoughts on “Thinking Outside the Box

  1. Roberta
    Your article reminded me of a book I read years ago called “They all laughed” by Ira Flatow. It is a story of how most inventors face rejection, but persevere. The book is now available on Google :
    But you know of course that persistence or perseverance, also known as stubbornness or obsessive-compulsive behavior is a genetic trait… Mixed with a good portion of novelty seeking, known as always asking questions nobody else has, it results in what you describe so adeptly.

    I like your quilt. It reminds me of my family tree, if I was to color-code who is related to who.

      • Yes there are. To find out about these inherited traits, I used the Promethease tool to which raw DNA data can be uploaded and analysed (for $5). Be ready for a lot of reading and not terribly user friendly, but highly informative with links to the scientific papers backing the analyses.

  2. I sincerely hope someone will record this for youtube. Will you release your results in a formal, or informal paper for those of us who won’t be attending the conference? Thank heaven we have individuals who think outside the box and absolutely won’t take no for an answer. Please keep doing what you do.

  3. I would love to hear your lecture. I am not a project manager.:( Will your lecture be available on video?

    I have never received any help from the project groups that I have joined on FTDNA. I have never ask for help and that could be my problem. It just appears to be a chat back and forth with the members. Sometimes this could be of help if it is your direct line. I follow your Blog and find it very helpful in my genetic genealogy. I have been a genealogist for a long time but just been into genetic genealogy for 2yrs. Of those 2yrs I have spent at least 6hrs a day on learning and applying the genetics to my traditional genealogy. Your Blog was heaven sent. It opened more windows into my elusive DNA package threw you Blog. Thanks again for your Blog and all the great information. My daughter (Debi Tate) and I teach a “small” class at our church on Traditional Genealogy and DNA, in a the small town of Duncan Oklahoma. We would like to refer our class more to the project groups but feel there is something lacking. We are on gedmatch, FTDNA,and Ancestry. We try to stay updated.

    Thank You, Mother daughter team, Linda Gayle Wilson and Debi Tate P.S. We have a Collins line from Newman’s Ridge Tennessee.

    • I will be writing an article after the conference. It has been difficult for project admins to transition, in part, because the Y and mtDNA can be compared publicly, but there is nothing to “show” publicly for autosomal.

  4. Dear Ms. Roberta, I spoke with you back in 2012. Taken every possible test FTDNA had available. at that time. Found out I am European-Jew. So far 5 generations Mother’s Family I desperately wish to find out anything about my true father. Unfortunately, most passed away No one alive knows or late years of their lives. Just said my mother was very secret , private person. I did find out jews her side and her father’s mother’s and ggggrandmothers jewish. Can you imagine , kept secret. I ask my mother .numerous times She cried and was speechless. Tried to tell me but I could see how upset it made her and stopped to not upset .I don’t know what happened .if she was separated from man who treated me like the Cinderella story. Except stepfather. With 2 other children mother had with him. Perhaps truth came about. I just don’t know. But badly treated.very badly. She used to tell me as a small child One day , they (The Germans, ) may come line us up ask who do you serve. She said just say, “Jesus” And and became silent. Can you do a segment on jewish Backgrounds. diaspora. European-Jew. To America.

    Seeking answers. Wanda Avigail Gilmore BLESSED5928@GMAIL.COM

  5. I look forward to your presentation. I recently received my father’s Y results and there are two matches at the 67 mark with 2 gd Two first cousins once removed. Pretty good matches! I’m trying to see if any of his ff matches are from this family.

  6. Great post! I keep wondering why, in this day and age, we get stuck doing analyses like this manually. My data is from an autosomal group that does not have a single common ancestor. I want to discover the common ancestors shared by a group of several hundred test takers. Why can’t these analysis be automated? Why, oh, why?

  7. Working with autosomal DNA, using DNA on Gedmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, family trees on Ancestry, Genome Mate, and a lot of e-mails, I’ve been able to determine, through triangulation, some common ancestors. While the projects have to do with Y-DNA, I have wished that there was a place where triangulation results/family tree information could be posted publicly. Something like: if you match these three DNA tests on this chromosome and this segment, you probably descend from Ancestor X.

  8. Roberta, I went to this website for more info on the topics for the November 2015 conference in Houston, but most of the schedule topics are listed as TBD. Do you know where I can find a more complete Conference Schedule for the Family Tree DNA Conference you are speaking at in November 2015?

    • The schedule was e-mailed to project admins last week, as the conference is for administrators. The maximum has been reached and the conference registration is now closed. I will be reporting from the conference as I have done in prior years.

  9. And Thank you, Ms Roberta. Thank you for teaching us & keeping us informed along the way. Thank you for your diligence, integrity & persistence. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for all that you do.

  10. Your out-of-the-box quilt looks an awful lot like a double helix. Maybe you should call it your out-of-the-box dna quilt! Good luck at the conference. Peggy

  11. Roberta, about the difficulty in organizing projects, similar to Y-DNA projects, for autosomal DNA. You commented, “There is nothing to “show” publicly for autosomal.” Is there a way of getting around that?

    Gedmatch numbers all of the people on family trees that are on their website, if I remember correctly. In my research, I have perhaps 10 segments, so far, that are triangulated with other genealogists and attached to various ancestors. Would it be possible for Gedmatch (or some other resource) to attach the ancestor’s number on the family tree to the kit number to the segment and chromosome that matches on the triangulation to that ancestor? And establish an index person, saying, “If you match this index person on, for instance, Chromosome 8, segment 11,000,000-32,000,000, your ancestor is probably Ancestor X.”

    There would need to be some rules, i.e. confirmation. This is probably something that Ancestry could be doing, considering the size of their databases? Whatever the programming, NADs aren’t narrow enough and aren’t getting the correct ancestors.

  12. Hello, everyone,

    I love this quilt. And I like everything I have read on here so far, too, both posts and replies.
    I am a newbie, green not only behind the ears, but through and through! I want to ask you all of you your considered advice on what testing needs to be done to get properly started on genetic geneaology..

    1.) Which DNA tests do you recommend I personally take? I recently did 23andMe’s autosomal. Should I use another company? Take a mitochondrial?
    2.) I am going to see my daddy next week (he’s 92) and would like recommendations on what I should have him take – both the company to do it through and which test/tests. My mother died back in the 1960s so I must infer everything about her. None of her siblings survive either.
    3.) I also have living: a son, 2 daughters, 2 sisters, and some nieces and nephews and cousins of both sexes on both sides.. What tests (through which companies) should I ask them to do? My husband and all his relatives are also deceased if that affects anything involving my children.

    My daddy completed a large portion of our family history back to the colonial period when I was a teenager, so I have that info to go by.

    Thank you ahead of time for answers to these questions. I trust your advice explicitly! I hope you will forgive me for barging into this post/thread with my questions.
    Donna, aged 65, Dallas TX

  13. Now if someone would just invent a DNA sampling stick! It would have to be long enough to go 6 feet below the turf, and possibly drill into a casket and through all the reams of cloth. It shouldn’t disturb the turf except for the smallest possible diameter hole — one that wouldn’t disturb lawn maintenance machines. That’s my dream!

  14. OMG I am so glad you wrote this blog Roberta!! So right ON!!!
    Thanks to you and thanks too always, Bennett!
    Enjoy my own DNA work and frustration every day.
    Always pushing to think in a larger way – and outside the box when nothing else seems to quite work! 🙂

  15. Thanks Roberta …. well said. Hope the conference went well … sorry I had to miss this year. I agree that Bennett deserves much thanks as well.

  16. Pingback: John David Miller (1812-1902), Never In His Wildest Dreams, 52 Ancestors #125 | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

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